A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Book - 2018 | First Scribner hardcover edition
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"During Sarah Smarsh's turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, 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 examine the class divide in our country and 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. Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side, Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty. Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad's construction sites, or visiting her grandma's courthouse job, she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality. Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother--and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita--she gives us a unique, essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country. 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. "--Dust jacket.
Publisher: New York : Scribner, 2018
Edition: First Scribner hardcover edition
Copyright Date: ©2018
ISBN: 9781501133091 (hardcover)
1501133098 (hardcover)
Branch Call Number: 305.562092 SMA
Characteristics: ix, 290 pages ; 22 cm


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Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for nonfiction.

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Feb 02, 2019

It's not the most captivating read but if the reader lets go and drifts through the family members and the multiple towns and jobs the story becomes a whole experience - that of the Americans living in poverty with seemingly no way out. Smarsh has shown that our perspective must change and preconceived judgements must change in order for our country to be of any help. "I was in a poor girl's lining like a penny in a purse- not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production." "Society's contempt for the poor becomes the poor person's contempt for herself."

Jan 24, 2019

A compelling memoir of growing up poor in rural Kansas--"flyover country." On her paternal side, Smarsh descends from generations of farmers who love the land in spite of how hard it is to work it. On her maternal side, she descends from generations of teen mothers, who because they're Catholic, always marry their babies' fathers. Domestic violence and serial divorce often follows, along with, in many cases, inability of parents to love their children. Mental illness is a problem, as is lack of health care and early mortality. Smarsh, whose own mother can't demonstrably love her, partly because she's brilliant and has given up too much too much to raise her and her younger brother. Fortunately, Smarsh's father isn't violent, and loves her, as does her "grandfather" Arnie. Smarsh makes up a daughter who she refuses to have, so that she can follow her own dream of learning and making something of herself. The extended family works very hard, often at multiple jobs, but has to move often (except for Arnie). Children, including Smarsh, therefore, often end up changing schools so often that learning is difficult. She, however, finds several teachers who encourage her, and ends up as the first in the family to go to college, ultimately becoming a journalist and professor. A thrilling book, from which I learned a lot. It would benefit from a family tree (sorry, I'm a genealogist) to keep the story straight. She does say in the prologue that for some people's safety, she's changed some names and merged a few minor characters. That may be why I got confused at times as who was who.

Jan 13, 2019

The first two sections of this book convey tremendously profound, philosophical truth and insights that, unfortunately, the next six sections lack, completely.

Jan 04, 2019

Really excellent and compelling memoir, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It expertly weaves together her and her family’s stories with social commentary that challenges commonly held beliefs and stereotypes about poverty and the American Dream. Caveat: while her arguments are convincing (to me at least), her book may lack journalistic integrity for some because it contains no citations in support.

Dec 23, 2018

Meh. Kept my interest, yes, and some interesting autobiography of a side of society I've not been exposed to. But also lacking the flip side, discussion of some of their views on politics, why the programs that exist don't work, why public schools are as they are. Could have illuminated the story that was told by establishing context around it. Perhaps that wasn't the book the author intended to write, but it's what I was hoping to find.

Dec 02, 2018

Smarsh tells the story of her grandparents and mother and father and their connection to the land and the tough life they had. It's a sad story of struggle, and growing up poor. Mostly it's a story of women banding together to try to make a living doing whatever they can so that they can afford the children they have. And Smarsh tells how she escaped the cycle of poverty by not having the child she felt destined to have at an early age. She writes with beautiful prose, and tells a searingly honest story of struggle and perseverance. She loves her family even though they have not always taken care of her. She is brutally honest about the failures of this country to help the farmers in the heartland.

LPL_ShirleyB Oct 29, 2018

Smarsh writes in poetic prose to rich & resonate effect!

Oct 23, 2018

I agree on the August meme but appreciate Smarsh raising the issues about the "flyover people" and their struggles. Kudos for her raising the "class" issues that we don't like to talk about in this country and holding the American dream up to the light.

Oct 22, 2018

Not nearly as engaging as "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance. Sarah Smarsh's use throughout the book of a nonexistent baby girl named August didn't work for me. Here's what Wikipedia says about a "flat character":
"A character (sometimes known as a fictional character) is a person or other being in a narrative (such as a novel, play, television series, film, or video game). The character may be entirely fictional or based on a real-life person, in which case the distinction of a "fictional" versus "real" character may be made. Derived from the ancient Greek word χαρακτήρ, the English word dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor" developed. In literature, characters guide readers through their stories, helping them to understand plots and ponder themes."
I don't know why Smarsh thought that using August would help her story.

Sep 17, 2018

Haven't read this book yet but greatly looking forward to - - Ms. Smarsh gives one helluva an intelligent interview!


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Nov 16, 2018

the American Dream has. a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you're born and to whom. . .but the poorer you are the higher the price.,.

Nov 16, 2018

The poverty I felt most. . . was a scarcity of the heart, a near-constant state of longing for the mother right in front of me yet out of reach.

She withheld the immense love she had inside her like children of the Great Depression hoarded coins.

Nov 16, 2018

Class didn't exist in a democracy like ours [in 1980], as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse.

You got what you worked for, we believed.

There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.

Nov 16, 2018

That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country's lack of awareness about its own economic structure.


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