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

Book - 2018
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*Finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize*
*Instant New York Times Bestseller*
* Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Post, BuzzFeed, Shelf Awareness, Bustle , and Publishers Weekly *

An essential read for our times: an eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in America that will deepen our understanding of the ways in which class shapes our country.

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.

A beautifully written memoir that combines personal narrative with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland examines the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

"A deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works--including Matthew Desmond's Evicted and Amy Goldstein's Janesville --that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America's postindustrial decline...Smarsh shows how the false promise of the 'American dream' was used to subjugate the poor. It's a powerful mantra" ( The New York Times Book Review) .
Publisher: New York : Scribner, 2018.
Edition: First Scribner hardcover edition.
ISBN: 9781501133091
Branch Call Number: 978.1033 SMARSH S
Characteristics: ix, 290 pages ; 22 cm


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From Library Staff

LPL_ShirleyB Oct 29, 2018

Smarsh writes in poetic prose to rich & resonate effect!

From the critics

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Dec 17, 2020

Heartland is a brilliant and poignant memoir. The author captures accurately the psychological and physical experiences of growing up poor, exploring working class roots in rural Kansas. Smarsh enlarges her narrative to tell larger truths about people who struggle in poverty all their lives. She worked with great physical and emotional courage to reach her own intellectual and personal potentials. Far from a "literary device"--as some have contended, the writer's use of "August" is crucial to the narrative. This is the child Smarsh discovered in herself in childhood, and nurtured all the way into her adulthood,
protecting her and keeping her safe so she could grow into the strong woman
the author became. It was also a kind of sacrifice, as the author refused to become a teen-aged mother who would mire herself and her imagined daughter in grinding poverty and injustice. It is a brilliantly imagined "character" that the writer nurtures and recognizes as her potential self, too, one who would write, teach, and clearly document economic class in America as few American writers have done. I have great admiration and respect for the book and for the author who writes so honestly and poignantly of her life growing up in rural Kansas.

Jul 05, 2020

wonderful and interesting story of Kansas living

JCLChrisK Mar 31, 2020

Incisive and wise. Smarsh uses stories of generations of her family to process and attempt to understand her own experience, which in turn articulates the experience of so many others. The result is both a deeply intimate memoir and insightful social and political analysis. In the course of telling her stories she exposes the greater context within which they existed.

It feels misleading to say this book makes me feel seen. I did not grow up in the same economic circumstances as Smarsh with the same hard-living history in my family. We were Mennonite not Catholic. We didn't farm and I've never felt truly country. Yet so much of it rings true. I grew up in the same part of the country as she did, just 30 miles the other way from Wichita. I'm a few years older, but similar enough in age to recognize her references and influences. Most of all, her environment was mine. I know the landscape she is describing. I wasn't in her shoes, but I saw those who were all around me. And I've lived with many of the same questions and feelings she uses her anecdotes to embody.

All of which is to say I don't necessarily represent a typical reader and don't review this from a neutral perspective. That disclaimer in place, I think the book is brilliant. Smarsh weaves family history, poetic descriptions, sociology, and personal reflection beautifully. It is not a linear telling, instead circling back through the same timelines repeatedly, each time adding layers of perspective and understanding. And, just as it makes me feel seen even as someone on the mere periphery of her experiences, it makes visible a whole world of people so often overlooked by everyone not them. This is what storytelling should be.

JCLMeghanF Mar 20, 2020

With unflinching honesty, Smarsh describes her childhood in rural Kansas and delves into how and why such poverty exists in the U.S. A beautiful, heartbreaking read.

The Between the Lines Book Group will be reading Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth in August 2020.

Jan 05, 2020

HEARTLAND is a deeply affecting memoir that examines the effects of generational working-class poverty on the lives of the author’s family. Although set in rural Kansas, the so-called Breadbasket of America, the story is relevant to any number of communities across the United States. Our nation is currently facing the ever-growing problems of income inequality and lack of empathy for those who are different from us. HEARTLAND challenges the efficacy of “trickle-down economics.” And it should be read by anyone who believes in the myth that with enough hard work, anyone can succeed and achieve the American Dream. My only criticism of this book is that author Sarah Smarsh uses a literary gimmick of writing to an unborn child that at times detracted from the essential message she was trying to convey.

Dec 30, 2019

The way it is written made it a bit difficult to follow who's who. I kept wishing I had made a list of the people involved at the beginning. Every American should read this book. However, I wonder if things are that different in our prairies.

IndyPL_CarriG Dec 09, 2019

Similar in theme to books like Maid and Educated, but less personal in a lot of ways, Heartland examines the changing social and political constructs that have made it harder and harder to work one's way into the middle class through the lens of the author's family and the poverty they endured for generations. I read this book right after reading Maid and it was enlightening to read about the political and economic changes that have shaped and continue to shape the difficulties faced by people trying to make a better life for themselves. While Maid and Educated were memoirs that were difficult to put down, this is a more thought-provoking examination of class and culture with a slightly more academic bent, but still personal enough to keep it interesting. A very worthwhile read, especially for those who have never experienced poverty or lived in a rural area.

if coastal elites genuinely want to understand rural people in "flyover country," they should read this book.

Dec 04, 2019

Read this book. Although other readers were turned off by the "gimmick" used by the author of writing to a never born daughter, I found that once you understood what she was doing that faded to the background and gave the narrative a framework.

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Add a Quote
Jan 05, 2020

“Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Carter said, his pale eyes full of worry. “. . . But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” - p. 23

Jan 05, 2020

“But the American Dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.” - p. 42

Jan 05, 2020

“To be made invisible as a class is an invalidation. With invalidation comes shame. A Shame that deep—being poor in a place full of narratives about middle and upper classes—can make you feel like what you are is a failure.”

“No one around me articulated these things, let alone complained about them. The worker who feels her poor circumstances result from some personal failure is less likely to have a grievance with a boss, policy, or system and is less likely to protest, strike, or demand a raise.” - p. 127

Jan 05, 2020

“Our sense that our struggles were our own fault, our acceptance of the way things were, helped keep American industry humming to the benefit of the wealthy.” - pp. 127 & 128

Jan 05, 2020

“Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” - p. 132

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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