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Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth - Sarah Smarsh

This book is poverty memoir, family saga and nonfiction piece rolled into one. The family memoir is interesting and enjoyable. The nonfiction aspect, though, is hamstrung by the author’s refusal to cite her sources. And the whole book is jumbled together, jumping from one topic to the next without taking the time to fully consider and develop ideas or draw important distinctions.

Sarah Smarsh grew up poor in rural Kansas. On her mom’s side, she came from several generations of high-crisis poverty: women who dropped out of school young, had babies as teenagers with the wrong men, and were constantly on the move, escaping from one bad situation into another. Smarsh got lucky in that before her birth, her grandmother married a stable farmer; when her parents’ lives were too chaotic, she moved in with her grandparents at the farm, and her grandfather and father loved and cared for her, unlike many of the men in her female relatives’ lives. But the farm was always poor despite the family’s hard work; everyone had to struggle to make ends meet, and in working hard to get through school and escape her family’s way of life, Smarsh had to struggle against everything her family knew, remaking herself into a person they hardly recognized.

Smarsh's writing is good, the stories compelling, and Smarsh delves into the emotional effects of her own life and her family’s lives, while also discussing the bigger picture and the trends in America. She does a great job of empathizing with her family members and portraying them fairly and sympathetically, even when their issues and their actions were hurtful to her. At the same time, the subject is all jumbled: each (long) chapter has a broad theme, and while her story of her own life is mostly chronological, within each chapter she’ll tell various excerpts of the lives of her mother, father, grandmother, and sometimes even great- and great-great-grandparents, and then intersperse it with historical information and political opinions. While perhaps less artistic, I think the family saga would have made a lot more sense in chronological order, rather than telling different bits of the same person’s life story in different places scattered all throughout the book.

And the broader nonfiction aspect also leaves something to be desired. The author includes no citations, nor even a list of the works that had the greatest influence on this one; she notes only at the beginning that “Points on United States and world history, politics, public policy, and other matters beyond the private experience are based on news stories, studies, and books I deemed accurate and reliable in my capacity as a journalist. They are conveyed with my perspective.” Oh, come on. Journalism isn’t supposed to be taken on faith; you tell us where you got your information, and then we can evaluate it. And this is a shame also for those interested in delving further into some of the topics discussed.

Then too, the author – who apparently has political ambitions – seems eager to speak for poverty as a whole, even while noting that her young life as a poor farmer is so unusual in today’s America that many of the friends she made later assumed it was a lifestyle that no longer existed. Her family is resourceful and even self-sufficient in ways that are rare today: they produce at least some of their own food; they build and repair their own houses. Smarsh’s family carries a lot of social problems – lots of drinking and partying, teen pregnancy, violent or absent fathers, constantly moving from one place to another and changing schools – but she also inherited a connection to the land and a trove of practical skills and knowledge that I think distinguishes her from most poor Americans. She’s really discussing two different types of poverty here – that of her mother’s family and that of her grandfather – but never acknowledges the distinction, nor that many people in poverty have an experience unlike either of these.

I generally enjoyed reading this book; I liked the author’s voice, in spite of her addressing the book to an imaginary daughter, and I found her and her family’s stories interesting and compelling. But I don’t like authors expecting me to take their arguments on faith, and I found the nonfiction aspects shallow.