Love and Grit in What Used to Be America: Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland

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Photo by Tatiana Gonzales on Unsplash

This used to be America. This rural landscape I walk through, drive through, every day is what American dreamers used to look to as the source of our national ideals. Field workers and farmers were the backbone of our strength. “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America,” Dwight Eisenhower said. (122) 

It was never entirely true. Cities made this country every bit as much as the country made the country. But there’s a reason it’s often called the Heartland. And what it is in our national psyche is changing. You come from a place like, say, Kansas, and you sense that the rest of the world views states like yours as “unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.” (273)

Sarah Smarsh comes from a place like that. Kansas, in fact. In her debut work of non-fiction, she wants to scratch the itch that makes rural folks wonder why they are viewed as “a monolithic cultural wasteland” (14) and she has a sense it has a lot to do with class and poverty. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth describes a people who “don’t use many adjectives at all. They speak a firm sort of poetry, made of things and actions.” (13) But Smarsh has a poetic voice of the first order and she tells this tale with confidence and beauty.

The subtitle might lead you to expect a screed—the kind of resistance lit that is snapped up by Blue America to bolster beliefs about how capitalism is failing us and demagogic leaders are taking advantage of the working class. There is a little Barbara Ehrenreich here and in fact the author of Nickel and Dimed has a blurb on the back cover. But even Ehrenreich notes that Smarsh’s book is “so much more than even the best sociology. It is poetry—of the wind and snow, the two-lane roads running through wheat, the summer nights when work-drained families drink and dance under the prairie sky.”

There are times when I wanted more analysis and numbers, but Smarsh is insistent about keeping the book at the level of her experience. For instance, after reviewing a litany of health crises that her family experienced over the years—a hemorrhage during childbirth, a chemical poisoning, a collapsed lung—she drops in an authoritative note about how such situations have become more dangerous as health insurance insecurity has grown: “The mortality rate for poor rural woman, in particular, has risen sharply over my lifetime.” (73) I wanted to know more about that story, but then again, not at the cost of her narrative.

Smarsh realizes she is an exception. She has risen out of poverty into a tenure-track teaching position and seems to have done it through a rare combination of smarts, grit, and family experience.

The American narrative of a poor kid working hard, doing the right thing, and finding success for it is so deep in me, my life story so tempting as potential evidence for that narrative’s validity, that I probably sometimes err on the side of conveying a story in which I’m an individual beating the odds with her own determination. There’s some truth in that story. But my life is a litany of blessings somehow sewn into my existence rather than accomplishments to my own credit. (166)

There’s also a numinous presence in her life that propels her, and this book, along. Smarsh addressed the book to the child she never had, the child she refused to have, knowing what single parenthood had meant to the women in her family and the ways it perpetuated poverty for them. Some will find this narration to a girl that never was gimmicky and distracting, but it feels authentic and helpful to claim the spiritual quality of living in a place haunted by larger narratives that are beyond your control. Her father sees ghosts, and Smarsh herself says she’s “seen too much to ignore those sort of mysteries.” (171)

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Sarah Smarsh

In the end the child that Smarsh has protected from shame, abuse, deprivation, and limited horizons by refusing to allow it to be born, turns out to be part of her. She calls the child August, after the wheat farmer’s best month, and only later learns that it also means “impressive and dignified.” When Smarsh can claim that for herself he knows the child was really her “highest self—less a guardian angel than my own power emanating, necessarily disembodied from a body and mind I had been told by society had little worth.” (286)

Heartland is a curious book. It has a tendency to float away from seeing things too closely leaving you at the end with more questions than answers about Smarsh’s life. For instance, she mentions a long-running relationship with a boy that never merits more attention than that it was not sexual. You wonder what it meant to her.

But it is a beautiful book that is sympathetic and loving to its subjects. And its subjects are not only Smarsh’s brash and lively family members, but the Heartland and America itself—what they were and could yet be.

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