Tuesday, July 6, 2021

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

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
by Sarah Smarsh
Read by Sarah Smarsh
Published September 2018 by Scribner
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Sarah 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 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. 

During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed the freedom of a country childhood, but observed the painful challenges of the poverty around her; untreated medical conditions for lack of insurance or consistent care, unsafe job conditions, abusive relationships, and limited resources and information that would provide for the upward mobility that is the American Dream. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves with clarity and precision but without judgement, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country.

My Thoughts:
I live in Nebraska. Sarah Smarsh grew up in Kansas. Right next to each other, both are considered agricultural states. But that's about as much as we have in common. When people disparaged my state, I was always quick to distant myself from the rural parts of the state. I grew up mostly in a city, middle-glass, stable and loved. Smarsh spent a lot of time on farms (being on a farm was all that kept her family from going hungry) growing up but she lived a lot of different places (she went to four different schools for kindergarten), the men in her life came and went and were often abusive, and her mom was distant. Still, Smarsh is so good at describing how her family lived and the way she grew up that it's easy to relate to her experiences. 

More importantly, Smarsh makes readers respect people like her family, people who work hard but can never pull themselves out of the hole of poverty. They are people who work jobs that don't provide insurance (even if they do, the price is too steep), who work dangerous or dirty jobs, whose schools don't necessarily have the same advantages as city schools. Children find themselves mired in histories of physical and substance abuse, teenage pregnancies, and absent parents. 

Smarsh shames those who harshly judge those mired in poverty, who treat the poor as though their lot is a choice they have made, a failure on their part. She points out the many, many ways the government, the banking industry, and businesses have pushed the poor further and further down. From the farm crises of the 1980's (her family didn't think much of those rich musicians performing in Farm Aid concerts, raising money that never made it into their empty pockets), Reaganomics (trickle down economics has never seemed to trickle down to the people who most need the help), and businesses that don't provide safe working conditions or a livable wage. 

Smarsh has written this book speaking to the child she never had, the child she never wanted or intended to have. It's a unique way to write a book but that child is what saved her. She named the child August before she was even old enough to know that name also meant venerable, respected, distinguished. In the beginning August was the "person" Smarsh could always talk to; then the "person" who drove her to fight for a better life; and, finally, the "person" she worked hard to avoid having so that she could finish school, attend college, and have that better life. 

This is one of those books everyone should read but it will especially ring true for those of us who live in middle of the country, in the bread basket of America, where schools are continually forced to consolidate, jobs are disappearing, and the family farm has all but disappeared. 

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