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Smart, Unsentimental 'Heartland' Pays Tribute To America's Working Class

Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies; Smarsh's mother was just 17 when she had her.

During the 1980s, when Smarsh was growing up, family farms were going under in record numbers, falling victim to foreclosure and the rise of giant agribusiness. By then, Smarsh's dad was taking any job he could get, including roofing, driving semitrucks and disposing of poisonous industrial solvents — a job that almost killed him.

As a family, the Smarshes were just hanging on, living below the poverty line. But like many others in their situation, they considered themselves middle class. Looking back in wonderment, Smarsh writes:

Smarsh's new memoir is called Heartland and it tries to tell more of that "whole truth." As you can hear in Smarsh's voice, her book is smart, nuanced and atmospheric.

Though Smarsh is now a journalist with a graduate degree, she hasn't written the predictable "up by my own bootstraps" saga of individual perseverance and class ascent. Quite the contrary. Smarsh spent 15 years researching her memoir and her lens is unusually wide and deep.

For instance, when she describes that incident of her dad's on-the-job chemical poisoning, she also connects it to a larger story about how the rise of the nation's for-profit hospital system in the 1980s made regular medical care too costly for uninsured families like hers.

Thinking about her dad — as well as her relatives with missing teeth, swelling feet, mental illness and addictions — Smarsh says, "It's a hell of a thing ... to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board, while your own body can't go to the doctor."

With the same lyrical boldness, Smarsh talks about politics and race. She has no hesitation acknowledging white privilege, but she also notes the puzzlement, shot through with disdain, that she encountered once she got to college and began describing her farm childhood in Kansas.

Smarsh says folks of all backgrounds would say to her that they "had[n't]" heard anything like [her story] since The Grapes of Wrath." It's hard not to internalize that kind of contempt.

It was no surprise, then, that when Smarsh was admitted to the University of Kansas on a federally funded program for minority, first-generation, and low-income students, the small handful of white kids already in the program had given themselves the nickname "White Trash Scholars."

Heartland deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It's an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows — the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses — whose labor is often invisible or disdained.

It's also a tribute to the Kansas that Smarsh still feels connected to, a place of beer parties amid "fragrant rolls of wet hay" and tractors pulling sleds full of kids through the flat, snowy fields.

Trying to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of her white, working-class childhood in this memoir, Smarsh reflects: "We can't really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are." In Heartland, Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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