Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
Simon and Schuster, September 2018
304 pages / Amazon
Kansas—a state known for wheat, basketball, the Wizard of Oz, and now Sarah Smarsh’s knockout memoir Heartland. Heartland follows Smarsh’s working class life growing up in rural Kansas. The story is somewhat linear, but often trails off the narrator’s main path with stories about her mother, grandmother, and other family members that suffered similar fates. Her life is riddled with the usual characters of poverty—teenage mothers, health concerns, poor diet, and general insecurity. Despite these, the book does not fall into a clichéd rags to riches story and delights in the many beautiful moments and lessons without overdosing on sentimentality.
Smarsh delivers her story without bitterness despite understanding how big business and American policies have stacked the deck against people like her. She continually mentions how legislature and political ideologies—especially of the conservative 1980’s—manifested in physical ways: welfare, child custody. These accounts are always accompanied by an acknowledgement that other people in America—immigrants, disabled people—have these problems alongside many more.
Though Smarsh, a journalist by trade, went on to prestigious roles at Harvard and Columbia, there is no condescension in the book towards traditionally uneducated people—and she makes a point to say that asking “how she got out” of the Midwest is a “deeply flawed question.” Smarsh does not accept the ideology that the Midwest is a place to escape, though she recognizes the many economic forces that push people away. She instead writes about the lessons her life has given her and all the people who remain special in their own ways.
Near the beginning of the book, Smarsh explains that a proper term for people like her has dissolved completely. Rural Kansans are not hillbillies—there are no hills—nor are they backwoods—there are no woods. This book gives necessary space to a place and people that have been willfully forgotten by American culture. The word “flyover” appears multiple times. As a Kansan, I know the places, smells, and seasons of Heartland all too well, but most people reading this book won’t. Fortunately, the book’s spirit and detail connects on many more levels than just geographic recognition. There is an abundance of stories for people of all types to connect with—whether it be family tension, institutional discrimination, or dealing with loss.
America’s literary culture especially loves to divide itself into regions: Southern Gothic, the New York School, the San Francisco Beats. For years, explicitly Midwestern writers and works have been brushed aside and uncategorized. One could even say that a well-known, proudly Midwestern book hasn’t been written since My Ántonia in 1918—now over 100 years old. Luckily, Heartland’s success has catapulted the region into the country’s consciousness and so many other non-Kansans have found resonance in the book’s themes of hope despite hardship. I hope that this book acts as a catalyst for the literary community, and the country as a whole, to recognize the unique and important culture that exists in between sea and shining sea.
Tackling the idiosyncrasies of the Midwest is a complicated endeavor, but Smarsh leaves out no detail. Near the end of the book, while cleaning out her childhood home, comes the sentence: “I climbed into the rafters to pull down Betty’s old warsh bins.” A careful reader may have wondered about the misspelling of that word; a quick reader may not have noticed at all. We are all fortunate that an editor didn’t scratch it out completely.
The word “warsh” rings out like a bell in my Kansas-raised grandmothers’ and aunts’ and mother’s accents. I hear it over and over in “warshing machine” and “dishwarsher.” As a teenager, I tried correcting this by telling her there was no “r” in “wash.” But it didn’t matter. The word stuck with her. Despite also being born and raised in Kansas, I don’t say it nor do many of my cousins. Soon, warsh will die out. As economics drive young people out of the countryside and the Internet streamlines our speech, this rural dialect may be erased completely. But not in Smarsh’s book. It’s there and it always will be: a monument to Midwestern life.
Madison White is a recent graduate of the University of Manchester’s MA program in Creative Writing. She has since returned from the UK to her home state of Kansas where she teaches English and works as a freelance writer. She also blogs about writing and other creative endeavors on her website Madison White Writes. Madison’s poems have appeared in The Cardiff Review, Whale Road Review, Vinyl, and elsewhere. She writes far too many poems about Kansas