'Heartland' offers a bleak but compelling portrait of white poverty

Journalist and professor Sarah Smarsh places her family at the center of a narrative that mixes dysfunction with resilience.

Heartland:
A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
By Sarah Smarsh
Scribner
304 pp.

Some miles into the country west of Wichita, Kansas, in a farmhouse with a crumbling chimney and rusted chain link fence, a young Sarah Smarsh talked silently to the imaginary daughter she might have one day. 

She talked about moving, which she did a dizzying number of times in her young life thanks to parents without security in housing, employment, or relationships.  She shared how her body felt after working on the farm, or while cuddled next to intoxicated relatives in a sled pulled far too fast by a tractor.  And she talked about how she would try her hardest not to have this illusory child – a long shot goal given the history of her family, a collection of hard-working, hard-living teenage mothers and the often violent men who came in and out of their lives.

This relationship with the daughter who didn’t exist offers both structure and dreamlike quality to Smarsh’s new book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  But it is her family that takes center stage in this bleak yet compelling portrait of white poverty in America, a narrative of dysfunction mixed with resilience. 

Although her stories are occasionally difficult to follow, given chronological jumps in what is already a complicated family tree, readers get to know Smarsh’s beautiful and emotionally scarred mother; her feisty grandmother with the generous heart and large collection of ex-husbands; her quiet father whose artistry in woodworking meant little during the recession of the late 2000s; the biological grandfather who killed people for hire; and the grandfather-by-marriage who offered kind encouragement. The complexity of these characters, and the lingering sense of desolation that accompanies them, seems the central point of “Heartland.” It is far too easy to stereotype the poor, the Midwest, or those who live in the country, Smarsh tells us. The reality is much more nuanced, and all the more heartbreaking.

Smarsh’s argues throughout “Heartland” that there are larger forces at work in the misery that has consumed her family and others like it; that decisions made by those without first-hand understanding of poverty have had a terrible impact on both the livelihoods and culture of what are sometimes called “the working poor.” The lives of her relatives can be mapped, she writes, “against the destruction of the working class: the demise of the family farm, the dismantling of public health care, the defunding of public schools, wages so stagnant that full-time workers could no longer pay the bills.”

But even worse, she suggests, is the widespread denial that her family’s class exists at all; that somehow poverty – and in particular white poverty – comes from some fundamental failing, a lack of motivation or character, rather than an economic and political system that makes it all but impossible to break multi-generational woe.  So deep flows this denial and shame that even her own family members couldn’t see themselves as “poor,” despite piles of evidence and heartbreak to the contrary.

“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,” she writes.

As accurate as they may be, the real power of “Heartland” lies less in Smarsh’s explicit sociological arguments, which can veer toward jargon or read as somewhat tired liberal tropes, but in her startlingly vivid scenes of an impoverished childhood. Many of these narratives are painful. There is insight of how her mother could have saved much-needed money by breastfeeding, yet believed this would be “the lowest shame of poverty” so paid for formula. Or the time when Smarsh checked on a litter of kittens in her father’s work garage, only to find them beheaded by a possum while their mother was out hunting.

This last story was a metaphor, Smarsh points out, for the “hard truth of the wild place we lived: Parents left their children to hunt for food so they wouldn’t starve to death, but those moments without protections offered plenty other ways to die.”

The reader knows quite early on in the book that somehow Smarsh has found a different future than the one she inherited. She is a professor, a journalist, a writer who can now publish a book. And while “Heartland” has its flaws – a structure that sometimes feels forced, a narrative that does not smoothly transition between storytelling and sociological claims – overall the book is an absorbing, important work in a country that needs to know more about itself.