Cover Image: Heartland


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This was not my favorite of the recent crop of memoir and social justice/ open your eyes to this classism/racism/other-ism books. I am from small town Alabama followed by smaller town South Dakota and I grew up in lower middle class (though in hind sight, my parents hid a LOT from us). I really thought I'd relate a lot more to her struggles but I often felt like some of it was a matter of poor choices. One could argue (as Vance does in Hillbilly Elegy) that it's a cultural pride choice, but I didn't have the sympathy she hoped for. Plus the narrative structure was odd.
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Sarah Smarsh’s beautifully written Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth also deals with invisible lives. Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansan, writes with great compassion about her hardworking family and their failure to thrive in America’s so-called meritocracy. Her struggle to break free from the circumstances that bind the women in her family—early motherhood, lack of education, shame—drives the narrative. Through research and personal stories, Smarsh creates a heartbreaking and compelling story about the working poor in this country.
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Ms. Smarsh writes of growing up in rural Kansas and the Wichita area. Not wanting to follow in the steps of the working poor on both sides of the family, she was very courageous to stay out of trouble and keep her grades up. She eventually goes to the University of Kansas with degrees in journalism and English. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

Recommended for public and academic libraries, especially those dealing with rural economics.

I received an e-galley copy through NetGalley from the publisher. The opinions are my own.
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DNF at 20% due to it not being quite the book I thought it would be. I may try it again in the future.
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I really loved this book. Sarah Smarsh is a writer who grew up in rural Kansas. I have a sort of similar background, although it has never occurred to me to write about it. And now I never will because Smarsh just nailed it so perfectly - the pull of home vs "escaping" the cycle of poverty plus the tension between being poor but having the privilege of being white in a racist world. I know this book with be compared to Educated by Tarah Westover and I hope this book doesn't get lost in the noise. The author used a clever plot device where she framed the book as sort of a letter or diary addressed to the hypothetical unborn child she would have had if she had not left to get an education. My description is clunkier than its application. The author did a great job of discussing this complicated topic in a beautiful way and I hope this book gets the attention it deserves.
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I read this book on a KINDLE with a free copy from NetGalley and I highlighted more sentences and insights than ever before. I am from a small town in Central Kansas and could identify with much of what Smarsh describes. Good for her for overcoming obstacles and being her own champion! Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Ad Astra per Aspera

I found the premise of the book interesting and many details relatable.  I look forward to hearing Smarsh speak about the book.
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What a powerful read! This book really connected with me. I also was raised in the Midwest, a generation before Sarah, and am from humble roots. That is probably where our connection would end since unlike Sarah, I was raised in a stable family with loving parents who were able to provide what I needed-both physical and emotional. Still, I found myself appreciating and understanding the life she describes as her own.
It's not comfortable to read about the struggles and continually regretful decisions of people living in poverty, but I think it's so important in understanding their challenges and often hopeless mindsets. How startling it was to me that it might be easier to just move when things don't go as planned or hope comes only in the possibilities of a new location. Sarah's family moved countless times, repeatedly disrupting her life and schooling. Yet, Sarah helped me to appreciate and respect her family's attempts to make changes and keep trying. Life is bleak when there is little hope. This is something that those of us who haven't lived in true poverty can't understand. Unsurprisingly, it breaks many people. Sarah's people were bent, but not broken. Sarah herself, found an inner strength and rose above, breaking the ties that bound her family to poverty.
The style of Sarah's writing is unique and genuine. The book is written as a letter to her unconceived child; the spirit of a girl that she called August. She was determined to not make the same mistakes as the generations of women before her by having a child when she was still nearly a child herself, so she created an image this potential child of her youth. Throughout her childhood and early adulthood this image became quite real for her, and she used it as motivation to never have her since that would certainly continue the cycle of poverty. Sarah's inner strength and gift of intelligence, along with encouragement from select teachers along the way, blossomed slowly into a life with better opportunities than those of her ancestors. She writes in such an honest and open way of her experiences, creating a real feeling of what it was like for the reader. It is hard, but vital to our future to try to understand what the cycle of poverty is, in order to someday find a way to create change and hope for a better life.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this title. Most of all, I thank Sarah for having the courage to tell her family's story (with their blessing) in such a moving way. I thoroughly recommend this title to all.
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This book is what Hillbilly Elegy tried to be. It’s a memoir - a well-written, engrossing, and often heartbreaking one - that paints a picture of one family that is but also isn’t representative of thousands of others. Her perspective and thoughts on poverty and classism are fair and balanced yet opinionated, and I hope when people read this they reframe how they look at the poor on some level. The book did get a little repetitive at times and the whole thing of narrating it to an imaginary child was uncomfortable at times but overall, this is a fantastic book.
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Several years ago I read Barbara  Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, and learned so much about the plight of the poor in our country. The book has stayed with me, and it has changed the way I think about people who have low paying jobs or are in need of extra help just to get by. For some, it’s a cycle that they just can’t get out of even though they would like to. When I saw that this book had a glowing endorsement from Ehrenreich, I wanted to read it. I was also interested because I enjoy memoirs.
However, I  have very mixed feelings about this book.  It is written to the  nonexistent daughter  the author, Sarah Smarsh,  imagined having when she was very young, and who she often  directed her thoughts toward.  I found that very disconcerting. She brings this fact up in the very beginning, and it struck me as so odd that I almost gave up on the book then and there. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that fact, and she continues to do this throughout the book. I also didn’t find that it fit my idea of  a memoir: a  story about one person’s life.  It’s more of a personal history about her family. It  skips around a lot with different stories that come from different  generations of her relatives. It  isn’t organized in a way that the reader is taken from the earliest days to later ones. That can be confusing at times.
While  Sarah’s childhood wasn’t filled with lots of nice possessions, she does say they always had enough to eat, and it doesn’t appear that her family was ever homeless. Her parents and grandparents were hardworking people who learned how to stretch a dollar  and make do. The choices the women made in their lives that ended up with them having children when they were teenagers, were nonetheless  choices. I can’t say that I felt sorry for them; it was what it was, and it appears the author had more of a problem with  their lifestyle than her family members probably did. They were part of a community, had family nearby  that pitched in to help each other and seemed to have enough money left over to buy alcohol  which they enjoyed with friends and family.  I’m sure this lifestyle  was what propelled Sarah  to work toward a better life for herself, but perhaps her family never had that same desire. Some people don’t want to go to college or even finish high school. They might not want to work all day in offices  or answer to a boss.  There appears to be so much anger on the part of the author about  her family’s circumstances, and maybe even the entire country because others had better lives than her, but her family had choices like everyone else.

Moreover, I also think that poverty may not have been the driving force behind her mother’s inability to be a super loving mom, although Sarah thinks it was. Not all women are  maternal.  Rich women sometimes hold their children at arms length too. I  don’t think a lot of farm wives were “helicopter” parents years ago. I grew up  in the country and all the kids I knew had a lot of freedom.   It seems as if the author has struggled to deal with her childhood, and her mom. That comes up in the book over and over again.  

I did find  the information about healthcare, and how it used to more affordable interesting.  Obviously the now higher prices for everything is, in my opinion, a major problem in this country. It would be nice  if doctor and hospital bills were affordable. My local newspaper reported a few years back the nearby nonprofit hospital had almost 1 billion dollars in profits for the year. One year!  They keep building new urgent care centers and places to get x-rays and other tests. Meanwhile insurance plans now often have high deductibles and prescriptions are through the roof. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pay for, say  the birth of a child in cash, like Sarah’s relative did years ago? 

Overall, I thought  the book was ok,  so I am giving it three stars.
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I hate to be critical about a memoir, but I wasn’t crazy about this one. The talking to her “daughter” threw me off. Enjoyed the sections about her mother and grandmother as some other readers mention though.
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Sarah Smarsh has written a provocative memoir and commentary on growing up in Kansas during the Reagan Era. Smarsh isn't just acquainted with poverty, her life is steeped in it, generation after generation of families who lived and breathed and often went hungry well below the poverty line.  

Smarsh's observations on what it's like to live with less in the land of excess. Her personal stories are accompanied by brilliant commentary on the effects of generational poverty in a country that promised to do better by its farmers. She also heartbreakingly details what it means to break the cycle of teenage motherhood and extreme poverty in her own life. Smarsh's story is transparent and beautiful even as it details a life of hardship, insecurity, and abuse.

Recommended for fans of Hillbilly Elegy and Educated
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We need books like Heartland.  Over the course of my own life I have worked with a variety of non-profits serving those who are financially challenged, you can see on the faces of many who feel they don’t deserve more.  Heartland says loud and clear, there is an elephant in the room for our country and we need to talk about it.  This book should also inspire every reader to take at least small steps to guide, improve or employ those who are struggling.
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A good book describing growing up in poverty in Kansas.  However, it was just one person/family experience.  Would have liked to have seen this go into other people's lives.  Characters became easy to confuse.
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HEARTLAND by Sarah Smarsh is a text I have been looking forward to reading, particularly because several teachers are requesting that we look for a text which could update Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.  Smarsh subtitles her work "A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth" and explores "what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality."  She addresses the concept of 'white working class,' saying "the experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic disadvantage, which can exist simultaneously. ... Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth. ... [Yet,] if a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?"

Smarsh's work is emotional and heartfelt.  She writes eloquently of different Americas and different understandings, but it did not have the immediate impact of Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, portions of which some classes have successfully incorporated into recent projects. Others have tried Desmond's Evicted or Moore's The South Side due to their respective Midwest and Chicago connections. I am still looking for something at a slightly lower reading level and welcome any suggestions. 

HEARTLAND, too, deserves an audience and could possibly work as a Junior Theme text. It is longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
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When I saw announcements for Heartland, I was very anxious to read it particularly as it was compared favorably with Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed…  Our book club had a great discussion of Ehrenreich’s book shortly after it came out in 2001.  I was interested in another in-depth look at working-class poverty and economic inequalities as well as a look at the Midwest,  a region that was fairly unfamiliar to me. But, other than topic, the comparison with Ehrenreich did not, in my opinion, hold up.

Parts of Smarsh’s work were fascinating and revealing but other aspects detracted from the whole.  The stories of her mother and grandmother, in particular, were highlights.  Perhaps because it was written as a memoir, with events presented out-of-sequence, it did not flow.  There also seemed to be repetition of her main points and emotions.  I also had to keep reminding myself that the author was simply telling her own story and that of her home state - not ignoring the similar plight of others, for example farmers, across the nation.  Finally, even though I appreciated the multi-generational aspects of her story, I was not able to feel that same connection when she addressed her daughter.

FYI - I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I'm perplexed by the hype surrounding this book.  The author uses an odd literary device from the beginning.  She purports to talk to her "daughter" in the telling of this story.  She doesn't have a daughter, but it's the possible daughter she might have had had she become pregnant as a teen.  Over the top.  And, because this is, ultimately, marketed as a memoir, that device just makes me question her veracity and the lens through which we are viewing this story.
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I was disappointed in this book; it wasn't at all what I expected.  The narrative jumped around a lot and it was confusing trying to keep  things straight.  But the thing that irritated me the most was the author's choice to 'talk to' her imaginary daughter.  At first I thought I must have missed something - did she miscarry?  Did she have a child who died?  But then it was clear there never had been a daughter - never even a chance of one existing in the time frame she referenced.  And yet - over and over, the reader had to hear the conversation with this imaginary daughter.  Maybe it didn't bother most people but it was like chalk on a blackboard to me and disrupted any flow the story might have had for me.
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Journalist Sarah Smarsh is a fifth generation Kansan who grew up with her family life centered around a wheat farm in the countryside, with Wichita being the closest big city. In her memoir, she chronicles generations of her family, particularly the strong but troubled women in her lineage, and puts their struggles and choices into clear economic and cultural context.

Smarsh writes to explain where her family came from, why they’ve remained at the brink of poverty despite working hard and constantly, and how she’s structured her life drastically differently, thus breaking cycles of violence, pregnancies, and lack of higher education and opportunities. In her “Corn Belt” world, farming and work as “laborers” are the options for men and it seems like personal luck goes a long way in determining how well a man can fare, while women vacillate between low-level administrative work or the frustrations of housewifery, unable to advance their station due to too many pregnancies, poor education, and endless financial woes.

It’s painful to read at times, but it shows strength, especially in the women of her family. It also feels frustrating in some of the choices the women make, but mostly Smarsh shows us why they didn’t feel they could have it any other way. Sometimes it’s being against a wall, elsewhere merely “we did as we had learned”: other models didn’t exist. It all serves to explain why she chose another hard path, of getting educated and getting out, “to swear that I would never suffer the way the women before me had – not at the hands of a man and not at the hands of an economy.” 

Some of the women, particularly one of her grandmothers, are depicted in their own inspiring triumphs. Her grandmother was clearly a huge influence on her, as she traces her story from many young, broken marriages and children to forging her own career path, autonomy and a stable, loving relationship. These grandparents seemed to help give Smarsh the foundation she needed to change the destiny that had been written for her. Her father is well-meaning but suffered a terrible injury on the job, and her mother is creatively and intellectually frustrated and emotionally distant.

The biggest thing this book accomplishes is busting the myth that hard work automatically equals success; that if you just work enough for it, the fabled American Dream is within reach. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.

…my family clung to the economic promise that reward would find those who worked hard. Society told us that someone in a bad financial situation must be a bad person – lazy, maybe, or lacking good judgment.

Smarsh elucidates why benefits were viewed negatively by people who needed them, specifically her grandmother’s generation, when in the 1960s caseworkers humiliatingly searched the homes of single women on welfare looking for evidence that a man who could support her existed. “If they found whiskers in the bathroom sink, the mother lost assistance for being deemed a scammer of the system – surely the man was ‘head of the household’ and hiding income support from the government, the thinking went.” This was so revealing, in addition to that belief that work was the antidote to laziness and poverty.

The bulk of the memoir covers her upbringing, with forays into the stories of the family who shaped her. Smarsh writes that “being born female and poor were the marks against my claim on respect, in the world’s eyes, and I must have sensed it.” The end result is that with her academic work, she was able to study her way out of the types of jobs her family had been stuck doing, but even then she was labeled a “white trash scholar”, referring to the economic-based scholarship she’d earned.

It’s easy to see how the greater perception – she includes the throwaway label of “flyover country” and parlance like “redneck” and “trash” casually used to describe her whole world. The biggest takeaway is that those beyond the Corn Belt don’t understand the economics or conditions of this world. I’m first to admit that so much of this was eye opening for me, which is exactly why it’s important:

For someone who never worked a farm, for whom the bread and meat in deli sandwiches seemed to magically materialize without agricultural labor, the center of the country was a place flown over but not touched.
“I haven’t heard of anything like that since The Grapes of Wrath,” people with different backgrounds would say to me in all seriousness when I described life on the farm. They thought we didn’t exist anymore, when in fact we just existed in places they never went.

I wondered how the issue of race and inherent privilege would be addressed, and I thought Smarsh handled it gracefully. She shows life as her family lived it, without making a case that they had it worse – rather these were just their circumstances. She acknowledges that although they faced derision from white people better off than themselves for their perceived laziness or incompetence, they never had to contend with the specific dangers anyone non-white faces in America:

Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth, Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot? Working in a field is one thing; being told by a corporation that a pesticide full of carcinogens is safe to handle is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another. For black and brown bodies, a particular danger exists regardless of how much money is in a bank account. We were white bodies in peril specifically because we were laborers.

There’s one aspect that I disliked and I wish I didn’t even have to mention it, because I think it’s otherwise an honest, revealing, and beautifully written book. But it’s structured as Smarsh writing this story to her unborn daughter, who she’s chosen not to have so to break the cycle of poverty/lack of opportunity that the women preceding her struggled with.

What she’s chosen, and her conviction in doing so, is so admirable to me. Her story of responsibility and making the right choices not only for herself but for another life underscores how brave and commendable that decision was. But every time a line pops up (that’s how it’s done – a line every so often, so it’s possible and preferable to forget this is part of the book) addressed to her daughter and what her life would’ve been, or how she got through something by talking to this perceived “presence” of the unborn child, I cringed. I would’ve preferred this element incorporated as another part of the story instead of to an unborn presence but it is what it is.

Smarsh’s storytelling is rich and immersive, her points well made, fleshed out and considered. The book isn’t chronological which makes for some confusion here and there, particularly in the wide web of extended family. Even so, it’s effective by the end: I understood much more about the economic climate that’s contributed to generations of bad decision-making, or what seems so from an outside perspective.

Like Hillbilly Elegy, it’s anecdotal in that what worked for Smarsh may not be an option for everyone – she had the drive, ambition and ability to go the higher education route, and even with financial difficulties and red tape that stymie many college students, she managed. It’s not a cure-all for what’s ailing the working classes, but any story that gives hope through having lived it and survived while showing possibility for change is worthwhile.

This is what we need: clear, sensitive explorations of personal experiences outside what we think we know. This is how to understand that there’s no “real America” and any nostalgia we may harbor for simpler times is more often than not dangerously misplaced.
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“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth” is a resounding story by Sarah Smarsh of her family life, heritage and farming culture on the Kansas prairie. With the passage of the Homestead Act (1862) over 270 million acres of land was available for settlement on the American plains. Settlers could receive up to 160 acres of land at no cost if they lived and cultivated their land for a period of five years. Smarsh, raised on family farmland, wrote that her Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors arrived on the frontier in the 19th century to stake a land claim. This way of life was brutal on the vast prairie, the dust, the unforgiving climate, and lack of natural and financial resources. 

It was necessary for Sarah’s father to work away from the family homestead to support his family. Perhaps unprepared for the unrelenting harsh conditions of being a farm wife, Jeannie, Sarah’s mother had an underlying sense of anger and resentment, her depression and poor attitude may have had a lasting impact on her two children. The rates of domestic violence and divorce in their community near Wichita were high and incomes were low; Sarah’s grandmother consoled battered wives at her kitchen table. The funding from the popular televised “Farm Aid” raised by celebrity musicians in the 1980’s never reached the farmers in Sarah’s community; government programs and aid to assist struggling families were scarce.
“For all my family’s emphasis on hard work, on some (level) we’d done away with the idea it always paid off. It was obvious that that the problems small family farms had was related more to commodities markets, big business connected to Wall Street and corporate interests.” 
When her father suffered from “toxic psychosis” after he was chemically poisoned from a work related accident, his healthy respect for rural women wasn’t enough save his marriage. Following the death of her grandfather, Smarsh’s parents divorced, and her mother left the farm for good. Her parents remarried to new spouses. Chris, her stepmother likely needed treatment for substance use disorder, though no affordable medical care was available. Smarsh studied hard, and did well in school, her goal was to attend college.

A great storyteller, Smarsh is a keen observer of the hardship faced by people living in the heartland, and blends the truth of her gritty family story narrative with economic facts and conditions. Now a college professor, Smarsh shifted from blindly following a sociopolitical agenda that hurt the poor and vulnerable population first, the American Dream is currently unattainable for too many people regardless of economic status. Smarsh mourned for the daughter she never had, yet remains hopeful for an honest and fair system that supports economic justice, a dream and goal worth having and most certainly voting for. With thanks and appreciation to Simon and Schuster via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.
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Strong initial effort by author Sarah Smart combines memoir with facts and figures to further explain her family’s hardships over the last century. This combination approach is a difficult one to pull off because readers are constantly pulled from the engaging family narrative and flung head first into demographic data explaining the larger state/national issues.  But the most disruptive element of the book is the almost constant reference to the author’s imaginary daughter.  The first time the author uses the imaginary daughter, and explains her role for the author, the device works well.  But as a continuing device for the book,  it is tiring and annoying.  I understand this was the lodestar for the author;  but it doesn’t work that way for readers.  An editor should have realized that distinction.  A good editor would have helped this tale really shine.  I had a difficult time finding it.  I received my copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
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