The subtitle A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth describes Sarah Smarsh’s family background. She tells of escaping the poverty that engulfed multiple generations in her family in Kansas. Two pieces of advice I took away from this book: 1) Don’t live in a country whose economic system makes it very hard for those in poverty to change their circumstances and 2) Don’t have a baby as a young teenager.
Her grandmother Betty is a major figure in the story. She was born in 1945 (the same year as me) and was aways a wild one. She had a baby when she was young and for decades after that she changed her living situation dramatically every few years. Some of the changes happened when she married a man, then left him after he hit her or her children. Sometimes two generations of women and their children lived together and opened a restaurant along a highway and left after a few years for various reasons. She was married six or seven times, but she settled down with a farmer for a long time and had responsible employment in her thirties. The author lived with her grandmother at that farm for some years and experienced the poverty and hard work that required.
A number of factors affected her family; she described her great-grandmother as schizophrenic and surely that was a big factor in the numerous moves. The bonds of the social fabric that affected Americans were loosened in this years so that teenage pregnancy happened more than it does today or did in the past.
Though Sarah Smarsh has never been pregnant, throughout the book she addresses her unborn daughter. It was this voice that told her what her place in the world should be. “I was just a kid, but I knew the other voices were wrong and yours was right because my body felt like a calm hollow when you echoed in it.” Fretting about a decision when other kids might have turned to help from parents, she thought, “What would I tell my daughter to do?” The story of her family is remarkable: the number of moves, the way the deck is stacked against the poor, the bad choices. But the real interest is the one who stood against all that, the author herself.
The author hit a few false notes in my view. She shows disdain for the middle class adoption of what she describes as the working folks look (fancy trucks that are always clean or flannel shirts and unkempt hair for affluent urban men working on laptops in coffee shops). I’d say those fashion choices are pretty benign. She resented the “shiny helmets” that the more affluent used when riding all-terrain vehicles while she did not have that good option when she hauled buckets of feed to the fields. She said her family could have afforded a helmet by reducing beer expenses. There seemed to be pride in the toughness that came about from the lack of education and as she put it, “culture.”
The author mentions how very hot it was the summer she was born in August. I remember that summer; my younger daughter was born at the end of that month. It’s noteworthy that her grandmother was born the same year I was.
Sarah Smarsh, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Scribner, 2018, 290 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.