Blamed No More

By Ann Piper

February 7, 2019

Blamed No More

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland, by journalist Sarah Smarsh, already a nonfiction finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, is a multigenerational account of a hardworking family caught in the systemic forces that perpetuate the unknown and disdained Americans who are sometimes called "white trash."

Despite such acclaim from the literary world, a strong review in The New York Times, and an endorsement from Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, Smarsh’s core audience seems to be the people least likely to read her. They are Kansans and other Midwesterners, those she calls hard-luck laborers, waitresses, and family farmers of the rural working class.

Smarsh shares the wisdom of one who remembers growing up white, poor, working class, female, rural, and exhausted. She shows how sharp her memory is with comments like, it’s “not so much if you live in a trailer but where it is located.” She moved up in class, obtained a college degree, then an MFA, and has had a career in journalism, things which those of her class rarely do. Yet, once in academia, she saw that, “There was no language for whatever [it was] I represented on campus.”

In contrast to the expected tale of a person who overcomes adversity by sheer will, her memoir instead analyzes the governmental policies that created the challenges working-class people face. It’s less about herself than her family—fifth-generation, Homestead-Act wheat farmers. She describes an economically strapped people who, during good times, live paycheck to paycheck on low wages, and, during bad times, choose to informally barter with friends and family to whom they can repay the favor. Or they wouldn’t ask.

The author watches women and men suffer the effects of back-breaking work as well as exposure to industrial chemicals and harsh elements of outdoor labor on the prairie as she, too, contributes to the neverending work of a family farm. She writes in a voice reminiscent of Mary Karr, “A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you.”

Smarsh is unsentimental about the struggles of her people and equally unflinching about America’s lack of informed discourse about intergenerational poverty. She writes, “In the United States, the shaming of the poor is a unique form of bigotry in that it is not necessarily about who or what you are—your skin color, the gender you’re attracted to, having a womb. Rather, it’s about what your actions have failed to accomplish—financial success within capitalism—and the related implications about your worth in a supposed meritocracy.”

America’s working poor, she observes, are treated as disposable even as the country consumes the goods and services they produce. “It’s a hell of a thing . . . to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes . . . while your own body can’t [afford to] go to the doctor.” People in social classes above the impoverished often echo the mythic narrative that the poor bring penury on themselves through poor choices. There’s research that indicates the opposite is true. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir presents substantial research that shows much of what people assume is inherent to the “character” of the poor is, in fact, the result of being poor.

For Smarsh, poverty is now monetized—and criminalized—through “interest, late fees, and court fines siphoned from the financially destitute into big bank coffers.” She addresses the politics of poverty as well: “Impoverished people then must do one of two things: Concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them.”

There are some aspects of the book, sixteen years in the making, which could have been better written and rendered. First, given Smarsh’s analytical capacity, it is notable there’s no added discussion about Native Americans whose lives the Homesteaders disrupted. Native Americans were displaced from eastern states to Kansas and the territories with the federal government’s promise that they wouldn’t be moved again. Yet, moved they were, whenever it was convenient to do so. To make room for such marginalized groups that America’s founders hoped would become good consumers and laborers for the so-called higher classes is better documented in Nancy Isenberg’s 2017 White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Another problem is that the narrative is not chronological. It’s often difficult to identify which family story one is following. Some readers dislike the breaks in narrative when Smarsh addresses the child she imagines she would have given birth to had she been born with more financial resources. One may choose to view this as a distraction or, more tellingly, as a painful loss that still resonates with the author. Smarsh believes a steep price has been paid for the lack of mobility she and other women of her class have endured.

Some argue that Smarsh’s book should be considered among a growing body of work addressing America’s postindustrial decline, for example, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American City. By contrast, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance framed more of the author’s accomplishments than his socioeconomic class.

But then, Smarsh’s main point, which she fully realizes in Heartland, might be missed. Class discrimination has existed throughout American history. Isenberg anchors the same opinion in White Trash, which documents that the working poor were, in fact, imported here as a labor resource and as consumers for the landed classes.

Smarsh gives the people she describes and the challenges they face the dignity of being witnessed by one of their own. “You can go a very long time in the country without being seen,” she writes of her grandmother who did not update her wardrobe for decades since she was miles from the nearest town, believing no one would notice or care anyway.

Smarsh did. I doubt you’ll regret the opportunity to notice and care, too.


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
Scribner, Simon and Schuster
$26.00 hardback| Buy Now!


Executive coach Ann Piper was born of fifth generation wheat farmers in the Upper Midwest and is now living happily in a West Coast apartment rather than a trailer.

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