Review by Elizabeth Catte
Elizabeth Catte is a public historian and writer based in Virginia’s Shenadoah Valley and the author of “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.”
Sarah Smarsh is a fifth-generation Kansan, a daughter of the working class and a successful journalist still marked by the shame of growing up poor. In her memoir, “Heartland,” Smarsh shows us through the fate of her own family how the working class became the working poor. She takes us through the welfare cuts of the Reagan administration that stigmatized her working mother and through the modern housing crisis that ruined her father’s construction business. “Heartland” is her map of home, drawn with loving hands and tender words. This is the nation’s class divide brought into sharp relief through personal history.
“You can go a very long time in the country without being seen,” Smarsh writes. She is describing the experiences of the resilient but stifled women who raised her, but her words also contain an indictment of a country that erased working-class and rural people from civic life and national commentary until now. It is only because of an unexpected political earthquake that the people in America’s so-called flyover country have entered the national consciousness. Smarsh reminds us that to be invisible is to be invalid. And for working-class women, the feeling of being forgotten is particularly potent.
Smarsh is a product of matriarchy, descended from a line of nomadic women who wield unsentimental power earned through struggle and grit. Smarsh’s grandmother Betty recounts an episode when Smarsh’s mother was an infant. “I packed my car with what little s— I had, and my baby, and I took off,” she tells her granddaughter. It was not uncommon in her family for poor women to make artful escapes from abusive husbands and relatives, and to survive by finding hard jobs and cheap apartments far from the danger. Smarsh, who was born in 1980, became the first woman in her family to grow up without a violent or absent father, though her parents did divorce.
Do middle-class and affluent people experience similar dysfunction? Yes, Smarsh tells us, but when their problems are laid bare, they are not subjected to a pathological diagnosis of their culture. Smarsh and others in her predicament are beaten down by the way they are portrayed and feel they have to justify themselves through hard work. “Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself,” Smarsh writes. If the men in her family didn’t inflict violence upon her, society did.
As a child she knew she was the product of a teen pregnancy, a shameful stain particularly in the Reagan years. One night, when she crawled into her mother’s bed and breathed heavily on her neck, she thought her mother’s command to “stop breathing . . . wasn’t all that different from the words I read and heard directed at my people from time to time: ‘Stop breeding.’ ” Smarsh became fixated on teen pregnancy and expected it would be her fate. She had no doubt she would be a poor mother to a poor daughter, just as her mother and grandmother had been. She believed it so much that her anticipated baby became a character in the memoir, a phantom girl named August. But Smarsh escaped the fate of the women before her and managed to stay off the life-shrinking path of early childbearing.
Smarsh traces the political and social hardships she lived — but didn’t understand — as a child. The poor, she explains, are not just shamed, they are monetized: “Interest, late fees, and court fines siphoned from the financially destitute into big bank coffers.”
Those familiar with Smarsh’s breakout writing about red-state politics will find a more subdued political voice in “Heartland.” The memoir is an extended reflection on divides that are rooted in class and the distance between what we wish were true about our country — in Smarsh’s words, the “wobbly claim that you get what you work for” — and its reality.
Smarsh notes that her memoir has been 15 years in the making, but it lands, with some irony, at a fortuitous time for her. “Heartland” inspires comparisons to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” embraced by many as the definitive text for understanding “forgotten America.” Both memoirs trace turbulent and chaotic childhoods through the lens of those who eventually transcended poverty with the help of education.
“Heartland” is intended as a rebuke to the conservative myth that grounds “Hillbilly Elegy,” that the poor have brought their misery upon themselves by shunning hard work and clean living. Smarsh, a woman with progressive politics, deserves the same recognition for authenticity that made Vance the de facto spokesman for the working class.
“Heartland” is a thoughtful, big-hearted tale. Smarsh celebrates uncelebrated feminists who were the first to work jobs no middle-class women would touch. She smiles upon a mother whose coldness melted when she found joy in helping another poor family arrange their first home. She praises the patient men who did better by women than their fathers did and who raised livestock and harvested wheat. At her grandfather’s funeral she heard words that she believed were true — words she rarely heard as a child. “He was real proud of you,” her grandfather’s farmhand told her. “Heartland” is a welcome interruption in the national silence that hangs over the lives of the poor and a repudiation of the culture of shame that swamps people who deserve better.