Cover Image: Heartland


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Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the RIchest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh was an exploration of SES/poverty through the author's experience that I was able to get an early peek at thanks to NetGalley. This memoir details the author's experiences - and the experiences of her family - growing up in Kansas. For me as a reader from Kansas, the Kansas connection was an added dimension of emotion and connection. The author writes this book for a child she ultimately never created/had. Through this lens, she explains what it has meant for her family to be poor and the realities of poverty through the generations.  The author recounts how her family got be where they are now. She explains her own childhood, including what she did (and didn't) realize about how her family was doing, as well as the experiences of her mother and grandmother. Throughout, she reflects on the systemic constructs that limit how her family is able to advance. She explores so well how she and her family were fed the message of "working hard" to advance, but the reality is the barriers persist to prevent this from happening. Given this was a memoir, not an sociological study, the emotions throughout were particularly strong. These were the author's experiences, and they're also the reality of so many in our state. I say that because I've seen it, and the author puts words to it so well.
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I always worry for good writers when their first book is a memoir, but I'm not too concerned for Sarah Smarsh. She's a good writer, and also clearly a journalist. Her research has been done, and within this memoir is a much bigger picture, an economic picture of America, and America's working poor.

Some of Sarah's upbringing is foreign to me, as far as growing up on a farm in Kansas is concerned (or considering Wichita a "big city", for that matter). Minus these details, her upbringing parallels my own. I'm intimately familiar with the level of poverty she grew up with. I grew up in a predominantly-White, working class neighborhood south of Detroit.

Like Smarsh, I grew up with Reagan and Clinton redefining our economic circumstances. I was raised by a single and fun-loving mother who supported both me and my chain-smoking, mentally ill grandmother (whose care I was left in so my mother could work). My health suffered not from agro-chemicals, but from the offput of, predominantly, the dying steel and auto industries that employed and then unemployed almost everyone we knew. I lived in low-income housing and stood in unemployment lines with my mom and made welfare-cheese sandwiches with my grandmother. My mother was proud, smart, charming and resourceful, though, and free of vices. She worked us out of it, somehow also creating space for me to eventually explore a life that wasn't defined or restrained by our economic or societal circumstances. And also like Smarsh, education saved me.

Heartland describes both a place and an era, helping to make sense of some of the sentiments shared by certain Americans today and how they came to arrive there. I left with a much larger sense of compassion and understanding, and that's probably one of the best things that can come from reading a book like this.

I was fortunate enough to read a galley (thanks, Netgalley!) but after book launch, I'll share some of the quotes I highlighted on Goodreads. There are some real gems - Sarah Smarsh might be a highly educated journalist now, but you can't take the country outta the girl.
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tl;dr: I was really excited about Heartland but a gimmick makes it fall flat.

I was giddy when I heard about Heartland--finally, a book had come along with the power of Nickled and Dimed!

Sadly, despite the glowing blurb from Barbara Ehrenreich, Heartland is not that powerful. Even for a memoir, it lacks impact 

There is one thing Dr Smarsh does well in Heartland, and that's provide a nuanced look into the women of her immediate family. She's clear on their weaknesses and also very clearly proud of their strengths.*

Problems in Heartland are:

-- Weirdly jarring choice to address the book to a supposed daughter Dr Smarsh might have borne as a teenager. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first, and biggest, is that it's very clear that there wasn't even the slightest chance of said child ever happening to Dr Smarsh as a teen, so the device comes off as affected.  The second reason is that all the "you"s are also intended to engage you, the reader. That might have worked except for reason one. Dr Smarsh would have been better to simply address the reader directly 

-- Gaps in the narrative. Not in the stories of the women of her family, although they are there, but in her own. If Dr. Smarsh was, as she alleges early on, a surrogate mother to her brother, why is so little information given about this? In fact, once her father remarries and she leaves her mother to live with her grandmother almost full time, Matt simply vanishes from the narrative. The same is true of her father, who she clearly adores, but who also essentially vanishes once he remarries.
Finally, after much detail about her early years, Dr Smarsh basically glosses over her own existence past middle school. Readers are told she worked many jobs, went to college and worked many jobs, and then, boom! She's a professor.

In fact, Heartland felt like it started off as a personal memoir that was abandoned in favor of a partial family history. It's frustrating because there's some really compelling stuff in there, but there's no overall framework. 

It's like being told you're going to see a historic landmark, but when you get there, all there is to see is the outline of what might have been something and a faded plaque with half the words missing.

There have been several recent memoirs purporting to be reflections of what it's like to grow up poor in America. So far, all they've provided are partial portraits that, in the case of Heartland, offer you a few stories that (in her relatives' cases, not her own) while interesting, are certainly not groundbreaking. 

*Except for her mother. Dr Smarsh clearly has a lot of anger still a brewing there.

Overall, disappointing. 

The ARC note: I recieved an ARC of this.
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This book drove me crazy. First, I didn't like the letter written to an unborn, not even conceived child. The second thing that was making me crazy was the skipping around. I would be reading about one family and then we where in a completely different time. I don't usually have a problem keeping up, but this was ridiculous. I had such high hopes for this book and they were dashed from the onset. I am giving tis a 2.5 star rating. I know I'm in the minority here but I can't go higher. Thanks to NetGalley for the book in exchange for an honest opinion.
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For those of you who loved My Name is Lucy Barton, or Nickled and Dimed, or Hillbilly Elegy, you will need to add this book to your TBR pile. Debut author Sarah Smarsh chronicles her life, and generations of her family, as they try and survive living and toiling in Kansas during the past century. The difference in this story for me was the fact that it is told from a female perspective, as well as focusing on the matriarchal struggles of generations of teenage motherhood, abusive marriages, and the lack of education. The idea that one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps is turned upside down when one does not even own any boots. This is an engrossing book that I read voraciously in just 24 hours, unable to put it down, unable to relate in many ways, and also seeing many of my former students in her stories. I wish I had known years ago what I have spent the last few years learning: that the chance of skin color, economic class, and geography has more to do with a person's ability to 'make it' than just about anything else. Yes, there are those anomalies, the poor kid who hits it big like Andrew Carnegie, but they are fewer and fewer than in years past. This book will provide any book club with some provocative conversation and food for thought in our own communities.
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This book fills in the hole that was left in Hillbilly Elegy.  The struggles of being a yougf female in the working class is described well in this book. This book also echoes well off of Tara Westover's Educated.

Sarah’s approach to telling her story, narrating to her unborn daughter as she would have been is a unique point of view that is a strong point for this book. I would have liked a chapter or two more describing the Sarah's encounters with college and the "blue" world. What made her change her mindset since the time she voted for George W. Bush?  Perhaps that would make a good follow up book?
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I received a free Kindle copy of Heartland by Sarah Smarsh courtesy of Net Galley  and Scribner, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages.

I requested this book as  I  work in a nonprofit and the subject of the book deals with poverty which is important in the work that I do.  This is the first book by Sarah Smarsh that I have read.

This book presents a clear picture of growing up in a multigenerational situation of poverty and the atempt to break out of the cycle when the political/economic structure of the country goes counter to what you are trying to achieve. The author's writing style is a bit unpolished which adds to the understanding of the situation.

Eventually this book will be as important to understanding what people in poverty experience as in "Evitcted".

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in learning more about the struggles in trying to escape poverty in a less than supporting environment.
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This book is so timely for our moment that it is almost hard to believe that the author began working on it more than a decade ago. Beautifully told, this memoir chronicles one family's life and times in Kansas as wheat farmers, trying to find their own American dream in a world where their true options were very limited. Class is such a no-no for American discourse, but these kinds of stories remind us why this must change. I found I had difficulty connecting fully with this book, but this is definitely a case of YMMV- ultimately, it was a book I respected more than I loved, but I'm glad I had a chance to read it
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Just an amazing book about growing up poor in rural America. Smarsh's writing is beautiful, and her insights are keen. I can't wait to buy a copy to share.
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Heartland is a great read. I enjoyed Smarsh's family history immensely. However, I'm not buying her assertion that she grew up in poverty. I suppose my definition of poverty differs from hers. She always had a roof over her head and food to eat. Smarsh never had to live in a car or under a bridge as many people have. From my perspective, Smarsh was rich in love and perseverance that she learned from her family. Various family members spent a fortune on booze and smokes over the years, which belies her poverty premise. The author also has a tendency to circumvent a person's accountability for his/her own actions. Instead she assigned blame like it was the government' fault, or the system, or a doctor; such as the case of her stepmother's sitatuon. She avoids stating the obvious: each person is responsible for his/her own actions. I also don't agree with some of her reflection pertaining to history and politics. Overall, it's a very good memoir.
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Wasn't what I was expecting. Not up to Nickel and Dimed, not that I compared. 

Thanks to author, publisher and Netgalley for the chance to read this book. While I got the book for free, it had
no bearing on the rating I gave it.
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Thus book is an account of lives we do not hear about often and is worth a,close look. The background must have taken a tremendous research and is rich with beautiful portraits od people, places and lives.
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I would like to thank the publisher for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I feel like I need to put a disclaimer on this review that I am not a totally self centered being but I may have enjoyed the bits about home a little more than someone who didn't grow up in the area. I grew up within a few miles of her Grandparents' farm, we were almost as poor and even have some Smarsh relatives. Our Smarsh's used a car hood instead of a canoe but it's all about the same. I really enjoyed revisiting childhood and all those unique experiences that growing up in fly-over country can bring. 


She isn't lying or inflating the issues to the best of my knowledge.
The book was easy to read and the stories were heartfelt and engaging.
I feel like Sarah did a great job of showing how hard life can be without being at all whiny. 
If you read by the chapter like I do, you will get through this book so fast!
She brings up a lot of great points and made me want to research things I didn't realize I needed to research.


I'm really torn on the conversation with the nonexistent baby. It's a neat idea but also pretty distracting.
The chapters felt too long at times.
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Many years ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and it knocked my socks off. When I saw Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland had been favorably compared to it and recommended to people who liked it, I jumped at the opportunity (provided by Scribner and NetGalley) to read it in exchange for my honest review.

First of all, thanks a LOT, Sarah! I was awake most of the night reading, then thinking about this book! Like The Glass Castle, so many things in it resonated strongly with me while it both entertained me and made me THINK. (My favorite kind of book)

Sarah had a chaotic childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, when the changing economic policies in the U.S. solidified the her family’s position as part of “the working poor.” The ginormous issue here is the class divide in the U.S., and Smarsh lays out the horrors in (as the subtitle says) “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”

Sarah’s family “consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters.” For generations, teenage girls in the family have given birth and then endured mostly horrific marriages/relationships: “Every woman who helped raise me, on my mom’s side of the family,  had been a teenage mother who brought a baby into a dangerous place.” For Sarah, that meant being  keenly aware that something was wrong: “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.

Sarah’s determination to get out, to break the cycle, is clear: she relates that she “looked at my family then and felt I had two choices: be a relentless worker with a chance at building her own financial foundation or live the carefree way…” which reminded me so much of my own thought processes many years ago. She prepared to go to college, and during the application process the “…specifics were unclear and fell to me to organize and decide, as is usually the case for a college-hopeful teenager whose family never went.”

On an individual level, her story (like that of Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle) is inspiring. But it’s so damn depressing to realize that so many people are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Even worse, as she did research in her graduate studies, she “…found that…if you are poor, you are likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you work.” A kneejerk response might be, “well, she worked her way out, so anyone can.” But reading the reality for poor people, especially women, provides insight as to why this just isn’t so. 

Much of the story is told to the daughter she might have had if she had followed the family pattern of teen pregnancy. It was slightly confusing at first, until I stopped thinking so much about my own history and focused on what she was saying. 

It’s pretty stunning, and I am eager to bring it to one of my book clubs, to see if it is as deeply affecting to women who grew up without knowing what it’s like to grow up poor is as it was for me. Five stars.
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Sarah Smarsh's Heartland is telling memoir about growing up in a working-poor family in and just outside of Wichita, Kansas during the 80s and 90s. It's a piece that is built on powerful storytelling, and a unique voice in which the writer addresses her future daughter throughout the narrative. She shares the stories of her childhood: the moves, the countless schools, the money struggles, but also the blessings of farm and family. Heartland is a strong indictment against classism and government negligence in the face of wealth inequality that is supported by the stories of her family's poverty and the research she expertly weaves throughout.

At the heart of her argument is the refutation of the myth that meritocracy will always produce a healthy middle class. The obstacles to stability she discusses are many: Medical care, rural and urban imbalance, the job market, housing, gender, race. All these barriers are compounded by the stigma brought on by being working class white (for her family). Pride and shame are two very powerful emotions that fight each other as people try to get a leg up in our country.

Heartland belongs on the shelf next to books like Evicted, Hillbilly Elegy, Nickle and Dimed, and Beth Macy's upcoming release, Dopesick. Smarsh's book provides a strong voice for and about breaking the destructive cycles of families, the economics of class, the fact that birth should not be the reigning mark of future prospects. Smarsh is a talented writer who tells the story of her grandparents, parents, and extended family with clarity and warmth. 

Thank you to NetGalley, Scribner Books, and Sarah Smarsh for an advanced copy for review.
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When I started thinking about my very favorite books, most of what I came up with were memoirs. I love reading about people’s life experiences and I so admire those who can put their past into words and inspire others.

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh is a memoir centering around the authors upbringing in Kansas during the 80’s and 90’s. Growing up poor in the heartland of America, Sarah shares her experiences living on a farm and all that it encompasses. I can’t wait to finish reading this book, its so interesting. Here’s the official synopsis:

During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less. Her personal history affirms the corrosive impact intergenerational poverty can have on individuals, families, and communities, and she explores this idea as lived experience, metaphor, and level of consciousness.

Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up as the daughter of a dissatisfied young mother and raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the heartland. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland is an uncompromising look at class, identity, and the particular perils of having less in a country known for its excess.

Do you enjoy reading memoirs? Do you have any favorites?
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I found this book to be an interesting look at poverty and life in tbe heartland. The one thing that put me off this book were the letters to her daughter that wasn't born and perhaps might never be. I get why she wrote them, I just think it could do without them. 

I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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3.5 stars
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh is an interesting and introspective look of growing up in the rural Midwest during the 80’s and 90’s. Smarsh eloquently discusses her families multi-generational lifestyle of wheat farming, poverty and teen pregnancy. She shares her desire to escape farm life and her ultimate escape to college and a career away from the family farm.
The vast majority of this book is enlightening and very informative for those of us who did not grow up in a rural environment. 
I liked a great deal about this book; however, Smarsh writes this book to her non-existent child. The book reads equal parts memoir and sociological insight into the everyday lives of Kansas farmers, as well as partially a letter to a daughter she has never had. The sections of this book written to her “daughter August” are just plain bizarre. If those sections were removed, this book would easily be a 4.5 to 5 stars.
I imagine many people would enjoy this book, especially if they ignore the references to her fictional child.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher and Net Galley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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