We all have our best registers, our natural octaves, and Smarsh’s is the grounded, oral, anecdotal range of her hardscrabble Kansas kinfolk. Fortunately, the tales of their adventures and misadventures make up the majority of her elucidating first book ... The memoir flickers to life ... Smarsh is an invaluable guide to flyover country, worth 20 abstract-noun-espousing op-ed columnists ... A deeply humane memoir with crackles of clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works.
Heartland is her map of home, drawn with loving hands and tender words. This is the nation’s class divide brought into sharp relief through personal history ... Those familiar with Smarsh’s breakout writing about red-state politics will find a more subdued political voice in Heartland. The memoir is an extended reflection on divides that are rooted in class and the distance between what we wish were true about our country—in Smarsh’s words, the 'wobbly claim that you get what you work for'—and its reality ... Heartland is a thoughtful, big-hearted tale. Smarsh celebrates uncelebrated feminists who were the first to work jobs no middle-class women would touch ... Heartland is a welcome interruption in the national silence that hangs over the lives of the poor and a repudiation of the culture of shame that swamps people who deserve better.
This relationship with the daughter who didn’t exist offers both structure and dreamlike quality to Smarsh’s new book ... But it is her family that takes center stage in this bleak yet compelling portrait of white poverty in America ... her stories are occasionally difficult to follow, given chronological jumps in what is already a complicated family tree ... It is far too easy to stereotype the poor, the Midwest, or those who live in the country, Smarsh tells us. The reality is much more nuanced, and all the more heartbreaking ... As accurate as they may be, the real power of Heartland lies less in Smarsh’s explicit sociological arguments, which can veer toward jargon or read as somewhat tired liberal tropes, but in her startlingly vivid scenes of an impoverished childhood. Many of these narratives are painful. There is insight ... And while Heartland has its flaws – a structure that sometimes feels forced, a narrative that does not smoothly transition between storytelling and sociological claims – overall the book is an absorbing, important work in a country that needs to know more about itself.
This is a provocative, well-researched book for our times. Yet one nit: Smarsh sets up this book as a note to an imaginary daughter, a childhood creation who shaped many of Smarsh's own smart decisions by prompting her to think, 'What would I tell my daughter to do?' Good tactic. Except that the resulting random sentences addressed to 'you' always come as a surprise, the reader not being steeped in her life-altering experience ... This is a difficult, but illuminating, book for these class-riven times.
The book is a personal, decades-long story of America’s coordinated assault on its underclass ... Heartland also confronts the racial politics of poverty. Where lesser writers might invoke the term 'white trash' as a badge of honor, Smarsh interrogates her own whiteness, rejecting the term 'white working class' as divisive and harmful ... In short, because farms are often a go-to setting for Americana, you may think you have read this book before. You haven’t. This is not The Grapes of Wrath or Hillbilly Elegy, and it is never saccharine or self-deluding. This is a tough, no-nonsense woman telling truth, and telling it hard ... The strongest element of Heartland, then, is its unabashed womanliness. At a time of national reckoning about endemic misogyny, Heartland does some serious feminist consciousness raising.”
Smarsh's new memoir is called Heartland and it tries to tell more of that 'whole truth' ... 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 ... 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 ... In Heartland, Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.
In her sharply-observed, big-hearted memoir, Heartland, Smarsh chronicles the human toll of inequality, her own childhood a case study ... Smarsh writes movingly of her father, Nick, an itinerant carpenter, and her grandfathers, whose hard work defined and often shortened their lives. But its her mother, Jeannie, and grandmother Betty who occupy the book’s emotional center ... Throughout the book, Smarsh writes in a form of address to an imagined child — an unborn, perhaps never-to-be-born daughter she names August. As a literary convention, it’s occasionally unsuccessful — much like novels disguised as diaries, the second-person narrative can strain good sentences into bad — but there’s an emotional power that comes through, a resonance that keeps readers focused on the weight and importance of Smarsh’s project.
... [a] knockout ... 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 ... 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 ... Tackling the idiosyncrasies of the Midwest is a complicated endeavor, but Smarsh leaves out no detail ... 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.
... ambitious and moving ... As reviewers have noted, the device [of the imaginary character, August,] can feel affected, impossible to sustain for long stretches. Yet there’s also something authentically distressing about it, lending, if not a face, then a voice to something that’s more than a statistic ... From its first pages, Heartland wants to be about class, toggling between traditional memoir and discourse on the ways in which social status congeals into shame and bigotry ... A certain slackness can be felt in these discussions—generalization, pathos—but for the most part Smarsh skillfully draws on her family’s specific economic woes to illustrate the mean, pious pettiness behind the 'profit-driven criminalization of poverty' ... [Smarsh] is astute in assessing the humiliation imposed by society’s avaricious zeal in punishing the poor, noting the ways in which it warps its victims’ perceptions ... for someone intent on mapping the costs and consequences of [poverty], Smarsh skates past a deeper factual analysis of such origins, including her own ... As it is, however, memoir is being asked to do a lot here, perhaps too much.
But Smarsh’s book never coheres into either a vivid memoir or a damning indictment of America’s growing social divisions. It tries to do both without fully achieving either. The problem is partly because Smarsh, now an academic and journalist, adopts a sentimental structure of addressing the book to the daughter she might easily have had (but didn’t) as a teenager. And it’s partly because the story’s terrain – poor girl works hard and makes good – is dense with cliches, many of which Smarsh doesn’t make enough effort to avoid. There’s a self-romanticising element to the prose that can read like a Bruce Springsteen lyric – all Chevy Caprices and wide-open highways – and men tend to be characterised as either women-beating thugs or salt-of-the-earth heroes ... However, [Smarsh] makes a strong case that it’s both wrong and counterproductive to dismiss the white working class of America’s heartlands as Trump-supporting deplorables.
Part memories, part economic analysis, part sociological treatise, Heartland ties together various threads of American society of the last 40 years ... Smarsh’s book is persuasive not only for the facts she marshals, but also because of the way she expresses it ... she uses minute detail to get across the tenuous state of the lives of her family ... in her silent speeches to a never-born child, Smarsh spells out clearly what she has gained, what she has had to leave behind and the cost for both.
In a choice much commented on by reviewers, Smarsh begins with a monologue to her unconceived (not just unborn) daughter. I prepared to roll my eyes a lot ... But when comprehension hit, I sat back stunned. I was proving Smarsh’s point that Americans at the lower end of the class spectrum lack both a systemic understanding of our economic situation and the sense of solidarity necessary to improve our shared lot. She’d triggered old scripts in me ... With first-person perspective reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickel and Dimed, Smarsh contributes a necessary voice.
Deservedly shortlisted for the National Book Award, Heartland is a beautifully rendered memoir about growing up on a poor farm in Kansas ... While some readers may find that Smarsh’s addressing her unborn child is a kind of annoying gimmick, these thoughtfully written passages are honest, sobering reminders of what could have been and are deeply moving. Though not overtly political, Smarsh offers many insights into how America has done a disservice to the destitute and asserts that the poor are not responsible for their distress. Smarsh’s engaging, authentic voice makes Heartland a standout.
Because the author does not proceed chronologically, the numerous strands of family history can be difficult to follow. However, Smarsh would almost surely contend that the specific family strands are less important for readers to grasp than the powerful message of class bias illustrated by those strands ... A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.
...this book is more than a female-authored Hillbilly Elegy. Smarsh employs an unusual and effective technique, throughout the book addressing her daughter, who does not, in reality, exist. Rather, she’s the future that seemed destined for Smarsh, the same future that had been destined for and realized by all the women in her family ... her story is a trenchant analysis of the realities of an economic inequality whose cultural divide allows 'the powerful to make harmful decisions in policy and politics.' Elucidating reading on the challenges many face in getting ahead.
...[a] candid and courageous memoir of growing up in a family of working-class farmers in Kansas during the 1980s and ’90s ... It is through education that Smarsh is able to avoid their fate; but while hers is a happy ending, she is still haunted by the fact that being poor is associated with being bad. Smarsh’s raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that 'has failed its children.' ”
Sarah Smarsh’s new book, Heartland, provides a searing description of the utter chaos that being poor entails. It reads at times like a simple memoir of a Kansas farming family struggling to keep up, at others as a social critique of America’s economic structure. Part family history, part picaresque novel, it helps us to understand the maelstrom of rudderless want ... The real-life characters of Sarah Smarsh’s near-novel fix our plumbing, wait on our tables, grow our food, and defend our shores. They are the 'Okies' of today: tough, resilient, simple folk who do not fathom 'the system' as anything other than a mechanism that will chew them up and spit them out. And so long as we dismiss them as morally bereft hicks somehow deserving of their fate, we will continue to fuel a rage that sees destruction as its only alternative.