Tilling the Prose of Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland

In Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh tills the past, telling stories of the people in her family with the purpose of making points regarding poverty, rural life, and the precariousness of being a woman, especially a single mother. I’ve seen the book compared to Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, which I haven’t read, and Educated, which I have.

Life in the Heartland

Where Smarsh’s memoir works are in its descriptions of growing up poor, of the cycle of teenage pregnancy and men whose behavior falls along patterns of abuse, distance, anger, and drunkenness. We see how poor, young women become dependent on men and how the repetitions of abuse and poverty affect relationships between parents and children. Smarsh also conveys her appreciation for the land, the connection she feels to farming and growing food for the country. Hers is a perspective of the Midwest that demands the reader to defy stereotypes, to see the complexity of a person, instead of the image of a single mom with a baby on her hip, standing in the screen door of a trailer with a cigarette dangling off her lip.

The Barren Soil in Heartland

While I felt it worthwhile to be in Smarsh’s perspective, I found the writing dry. Why should I care about the minutia of her family? There are so many anecdotes that portray similar scenes: abusive men, drunkenness, poverty, and movement. What would the writing look like if Smarsh crafted a few essays instead of trying to tie it together in a 288-page memoir? I began skimming through the family stories to hit the points at the end of the sections. The repetition became tiring. When I ask why one should care about Smarsh’s family, it’s with the thought of one’s own family. How much do you know about your family history? Instead of investing time into the Smarsh family for a limited payoff, why not dig into your own family’s history?

The juxtaposition from reading Educated by Tara Westover makes Heartland feel less nimble and dull. While Educated also shows us a young woman who moved from poverty and rural life to that of middle-class through education, Westover’s writing is lyric and evocative, her story rich and alarming. Perhaps, Smarsh’s journalistic background is both its strength and its weakness. In trying to tell the story of poverty and rural life through the lens of her family, the writing is muddled and less urgent.

The Unborn Baby

Throughout the novel, Smarsh uses the child she never had as a rhetorical device. She addresses sections of the book to this unborn daughter and is in conversation with her. By the end, it sort of comes together, but overall it’s distracting.

The Story of Heartland in Fiction

If you enjoyed Heartland, or if I’ve turned you off from the memoir, let me suggest reading the novel Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Sure, you won’t get into the specifics of poverty in American rural life, but it’s an engaging read that covers similar territory. Haruf’s writing is full of compassion, tenderness, and knowledge of the human condition.

The Bias of the Reader

Part of my response to Heartland, may also be from my own past and growing up poor in Michigan.  However, instead of being stuck in a cycle of poverty, our family tumbled from the middle-class due to suicide and debt. My mother knew of the power of education, had completed all the coursework for her Ph.D., but didn’t finish her dissertation. She pushed us to be good students and it was just assumed we would go to college.

At times, we lacked health insurance, met the requirements for free meals at school, stayed put for breaks while other families traveled. There was always enough food on the table as my mom was a good cook who knew how to make meals from scratch while on a budget and we raised our own vegetables in the summer. But there was always a feeling we were one incident away from losing everything. Growing up without economic security is growing up with worry, with fear, with a sense of uncertainty you’re afraid to communicate because then people will see you, will know that you are poor. When you’re a child you can have that fantasy of not knowing your socioeconomic status is obvious. It comes crashing down though. For me, it was in junior high when one of the neighbors I babysat told me, the reason their parents paid me so much was because I was poor.

When I read Heartland, parts of it resonate, but it feels clunky, undecided in what it wants to be. Perhaps, I am not the ideal reader for the memoir. Perhaps, the audience for this book is someone from the coasts, who grew up in an urban environment and carelessly refers to the farmland, lakes, fields, and forests as flyover country, a landscape and people whom they wish to ignore.

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