A memoir of journalist Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on how the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor.
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.