Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
by Sarah Smarsh
Scribner, 290 pp., $26.00
Courtesy of The New York Review of Books
As told in her ambitious and moving new memoir, Heartland, Sarah Smarsh’s life was ripped right out of a Bruce Springsteen song. “Spare Parts,” for one: “Bobby said he’d pull out Bobby stayed in/Janey had a baby it wasn’t any sin.”
That’s pretty much the tale the author tells of her own conception, except that her father was Nick and her mother was seventeen-year-old Jeannie. On Halloween night, 1979, Nick and Jeannie are having sex in his parents’ basement when Jeannie says, “Don’t come in me!” Nick pays no attention. Like most Springsteen songs, the story ends in melancholy, or what Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, his great Victorian novel about the debasement of poor country women, called “the ache of modernism.”
That unguarded moment did produce Sarah Smarsh and this book, which is all about unwanted babies: having them, raising them, and resenting them. She is unerringly acute on this much-avoided subject. Of herself, she writes, “I thus was the proverbial teen pregnancy, my very existence the mark of poverty. I was in a poor girl’s lining like a penny in a purse—not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production.”
By her account she was the first to break the cycle of poverty and teen pregnancy to which women’s lives in her family have been strapped, as to a wheel, for five generations across the fields of rural Kansas. As in Tess, another pastoral drama about “the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe,” the woman pays and pays and pays. Violence done to women runs parallel to another major theme of the book, which involves the violence done to lives dependent on the land by both natural forces—storms and tornadoes—and unnatural ones, such as the ill economic winds ever blowing from Washington.
There are occasional fond recollections here of the prairie earth and its bounty—“peach and walnut trees, thickets of boysenberries, the fields of alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat”—and bittersweet ones of rides on a hayrack or wooden sled pulled by a well-lubricated guy on a tractor. But moments of peace and satisfaction are few: the narrative as a whole proves an unremitting saga of physical struggle and bruising misfortune. For this family, poverty is defined not by a line on a graph but by damage done to their bodies by labor and want. “While we never starved or went without shelter in a chronic way,” Smarsh writes, “we all knew what it felt like to need something essential—food, shoes, a safe place to live, a rent payment, a trip to the doctor—and go without it for lack of money.” Her account of her family’s daily battle against the elements and the machinery meant to tame them suggests that the sheer brutality of the life, which is nothing if not rigidly gender-determined, bleeds into domestic battles. “Our bodies were born into hard labor,” she writes, and when the men in her family are not hoisting air compressors, hanging drywall, or driving combines, they’re drinking too much and giving their wives or girlfriends or stepkids a compensatory clout.
For city folk, Heartland seems meant to tear the sentimental veneer off of rural life, with its hectic juggling of multiple jobs on the farm and elsewhere: the parental clans are perpetually driving long distances in dilapidated vehicles, back and forth to Wichita or other job sites, desperate to make ends meet. During this frantic round, there are countless injuries, accidents, and addictions meant to kill the pain. One entire passage is devoted to car crashes. “Over beers,” the author says, her family “could map a rough timeline of their existence by car crashes…. ‘No, that’s the time it was on the bridge over the crick.’” The young Sarah finds herself in no fewer than “three school bus wrecks by the time I finished high school,” tipping into ditches thanks to “bad rural roads and hard Kansas weather.”
Inescapable patterns emerge as we learn about the author’s father—gentle, well-meaning (if unlucky) Nick—and his tribe: his parents, Chic and Teresa, and their large Catholic family of six children. After his shotgun marriage, Nick seems enterprising, starting a successful fireworks stand and a construction firm. But every gain is short-lived: Nick builds a pole barn out of wood salvaged from a 1910 high school, only to see it burn to the ground with his 1940s Massey Harris combine inside. His firm is threatened during the Reagan recession of the early 1980s, and he takes a job delivering and disposing of cleaning solvents. He breathes toxic fumes and ends up in the hospital with chemical poisoning and neurological damage, a near-fatal episode requiring several years of recovery. He and Jeannie divorce, and when the author is ten, he remarries, this time to a woman addicted to opioids.
For the men in this story, that’s largely how it goes. Almost to a man (with one notable exception), they’re hapless or vicious. For a memoir dedicated to showing the ways in which rural women are physically threatened by isolation and poverty—far from medical care they can’t afford anyway—it’s the women who emerge as powerful, determined, and relentless, despite the fearsome odds stacked against them. Indeed, Smarsh tells us that “in our family, women made the decisions and no one pretended otherwise.” To an extent that nearly undermines her focus on their plight (one section is entitled “The Body of a Poor Girl”), these women are formidable.
The standout character is Smarsh’s maternal grandmother, Betty, who is sixteen when she becomes pregnant with the author’s mother by the shadowy Ray, a “Wichita street thug” said to have been a career criminal and murderer who once shot Betty in the arm. (Ray will be supplanted by no fewer than seven stepfathers, perhaps laying the foundation for Jeannie’s grievances; she will become a teenage terror as a mother.) As a child, Betty was herself knocked around by her own mother’s parade of husbands, and after wading through a family history of fisticuffs and baseball bats, readers will be delighted to learn that on one occasion she gives as good as she gets, taking a cast-iron skillet and beating the living shit out of her abusive stepdad Joe. It’s the original version of leaning in. But of course she too becomes a serial marrier of louts, dragging her children across the country, packing them onto trains and installing them in motels, eventually losing custody of her son to one of her ex-husbands. “It was like living in the circus,” says Pud, one of Betty’s sisters who weathered these years with her, but “without the fun.”
Ultimately, however, Betty makes good. She settles down with the man Smarsh will know as “Grandpa Arnie,” a solid citizen who grows wheat and alfalfa on 160 acres and keeps fifty head of cattle. She becomes a legendary probation officer in the Wichita county courthouse, where she is unimpressed by clients’ hard-luck stories: “I just told ’em, hey, don’t give me any bullshit about ‘dysfunctional family,’ honey—our family invented it.” There her granddaughter absorbs troubling lessons in how professional women comport themselves: never get above yourself, but at the same time work harder than everyone else. Betty brusquely takes Sarah down a peg when her granddaughter tells visitors that she’s in her school’s gifted program, snapping, “Sarah, don’t brag.” At the same time, Betty prides herself on being called a “tough bitch.”
While the memoir pays more attention to previous generations, Smarsh’s upbringing is nonetheless deeply tense and traumatic, a litany of adult incompetence and cruelty. Her napping mother tells her, age four, to “Stop breathing”; Grandma Betty gives her Nicorette gum to chew; her first-grade teacher torments her, singling her out for yawning or talking back, forcing her to apologize for endless petty infractions before receiving a snack. In addition to her mother’s rejection and father’s miseries, Sarah is subjected to near-constant chaos and existential anxiety, moving more than twenty times throughout her childhood, casting her lot with Betty and Arnie at several junctures. In later years, Jeannie develops a “strange poise,” becoming a dynamic real estate agent, apologizing to her daughter for her failures of affection, but the scars remain.
The trauma lies behind Smarsh’s determination to break the family cycle of teen pregnancy, committing herself to getting an education and gaining an independent and financially stable life. She’s not going to be the Janey, or Jeannie, or Tess of her life story; she’s not going to be a spare part or produce one. That conscious decision, making her a stranger to her own family, dictates the awkward authorial choice made here. Throughout, the author addresses herself to a mysterious “you,” identified as the unwanted child she has deliberately chosen not to have, at least while a child herself. She describes that goal as her “most important assignment…to make sure you were never born.”
Smarsh writes that, as a child, she constantly felt the presence of this nonperson, perhaps a version of the invisible friend. She even assigns it a name, “August” (Grandpa Arnie’s middle name). As reviewers have noted, the device 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. Teen pregnancy is at a low in the US, but there were 209,809 babies born to girls fifteen to nineteen years old in 2016. That rate is higher than those of many developed countries, and as the demonization and defunding of Planned Parenthood and other providers of contraceptive and women’s health services continue, it seems destined to rise, along with the nearly $10 billion spent on health care, foster care, and the incarceration of teen parents (at a rate notably higher than that of their childless peers). Last May, the Trump administration redirected Title X funding, which prevents an estimated one million unintended pregnancies a year, to alternatives such as “natural family planning.”
What’s more, Smarsh’s ghostly “you” forces the reader to contend with something that remains a taboo subject outside of fiction (and a few memoirs that have been roundly attacked for their candor). Motherhood may be a newly trendy subject, but there are not a lot of books about mothers who hate their kids. Smarsh is honest enough to recognize “the misery motherhood brings some women,” including her own mother, and the toll resentment takes on unwanted children. To be sure, as Hardy has it, the woman pays. But children pay more.
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. “America didn’t talk about class when I was growing up,” Smarsh writes, adding, “I had no idea why my life looked the way it did, why my parents’ young bodies ached, why some opportunities were closed off to me.” 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…many of us ending up in county jails unable to pay mounting fines in veritable debtor prisons.” She 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. She recalls Grandma Betty growling “Get a job” while driving past a homeless panhandler; she records the same woman confessing, “in the tone of a guilty convict,” that she had once been on welfare.
In a Dickensian passage about her relatives’ gnawing fear of run-ins with the police (while acknowledging the far greater peril faced by people of color in such encounters), she describes how that shame has been codified into law and “monetized to benefit the rich.” Her mother was “forever getting pulled over for a busted taillight or expired tags she couldn’t afford to replace,” Smarsh sitting rigid with dread in the back seat.
Her clan had ample opportunity to experience the punitive fallout, as federal and state governments cut budgets, and banks and canny city and county governments made up the difference with fines and fees: court fines, driving citations, fines to turn on utilities after they’ve been turned off for late payment, fees to remove DUI infractions from the legal record, “for keeping or getting a job, a loan, an apartment,” and high ATM fees to access pittances of relief money. “As I felt myself a burden to my family,” she writes, “my family must have felt itself a burden to society. When they did everything right, there was little reward, but one late utility payment and the bill collectors or patrol cars were on their ass.” Coming from Kansas, where growth plummeted and budget deficits ballooned during Governor Sam Brownback’s recent “red-state experiment” in tax cuts—universally recognized as a humiliating failure (and a model for the Trump tax cut)—Smarsh’s account should be hung around Republican necks like an albatross.
Criminalizing poverty is hardly a new phenomenon. In Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017), Keri Leigh Merritt traces the ways in which slave owners created what has become a permanent white underclass, opposing for generations homestead legislation (not passed until the outbreak of the Civil War) that would have distributed land to the poor. By consolidating wealth among the top one percent and reaping the huge economic rewards of slaves’ labor, slave owners not only perpetuated centuries of savage injustice in the lives of blacks, they also left poor whites jobless and landless. To control this underclass, whose resentment of slaveholders imperiled the institution, Merritt writes, the master class began “jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder.” They waged an organized campaign that involved
selectively enforcing behavioral laws, especially in places with both high slave populations and recent influxes of transient whites. By insisting that poor whites be arrested for vagrancy, buying liquor on Sunday, or engaging in lewd behavior, slaveholders were able to incarcerate non-slaveholders whenever they needed to reinforce subordination to their authority. Poor whites’ increasingly frequent bouts with local law enforcement officials helped brand them as hardened, troublesome criminals, characterized…by “laziness, carelessness, unreliability, lack of foresight and ambition, habitual failure and a general incompetency.”
That contempt for “poor white trash” (among the slurs Smarsh lingers over, regretting their cheap lionization on T-shirts and in country songs) was immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who deplored the class as “utterly ignorant, and inconceivably brutal.” Merritt’s study shows how deeply and perhaps ineradicably the atavistic bitterness and insecurity of poor whites is rooted in the history of slavery.
This is the kind of history that helps explain cycles of poverty, but for someone intent on mapping the costs and consequences of the condition, Smarsh skates past a deeper factual analysis of such origins, including her own, saying merely, “we were centuries-old peasant stock,” admitting that once these poor folk got to Kansas, “they stayed.” Why? All she can offer is, “I don’t know.” It might have been revealing to trace her family’s history of land ownership, or that of farmers like them. As it is, however, memoir is being asked to do a lot here, perhaps too much. It can be jarring to read, during a wrenching account of Jeannie’s postpartum suffering, her stitches tearing and blood running down her thighs, that “society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children.” Of course it did, but that doesn’t excuse writing that too often lurches into the abstract.
Smarsh never mentions her best-selling predecessor, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, but Heartland can be seen as its self-consciously female bookend. That earlier memoir features a lot of bad mothers: addicts, slackers, women who “seemed interested ‘only in breeding.’” Leading light of those leveraging their white-trash credentials into a platform, claiming insight into the motives of whoever it was who voted for Trump, Vance too was raised largely by grandparents who acted as stabilizing pillars (his father disappeared and his mother was an addict). While aiming for “sympathy and understanding,” Vance blames his own class, reviling food-stamp recipients for buying steaks and cell phones, and swiftly coming to the libertarian conclusion that “no government…can fix these problems for us.”
That may be true, but it’s also clear that Smarsh and her little brother, during a window of opportunity in Wichita, gained immeasurably from free school breakfasts and lunches, subsidized health care, Head Start, and the gifted program that set young Sarah on her way to becoming a writer. Once a Bush voter, later a progressive, she looks back on her past without acid judgment, never failing to show empathy in chronicling the ways in which her family, especially the women, were trapped in poverty they lacked the resources, education, and government assistance to escape.
Now a successful writer and college professor in Topeka, owner of a home where a single room “had more square footage than most places I’d lived,” Smarsh concludes by pondering what she describes as a “deeply flawed” question she is often asked: “How did you get out?” She didn’t get out, she says, since she still inhabits both the world she grew up in and the middle-class lifestyle she earned, “class being a false construct.” It’s an unanswerable question—why does one person’s drive, ambition, and luck vault them out of their own class and into another? She knows one thing for sure: her own mother and grandmother had drive and ambition to burn, yet were stuck in circumstances, mothers when they were still children.
When she turns thirty, she describes the moment when she realizes that poverty no longer defines her. That night, she releases her fantasy child: “I felt you go like a hand slipping out from mine…the poor child I would never have—not because I would never have a child but because I was no longer poor.” In a storage tub she keeps a toy given her by her mother, with a tag reading, “from Grandma Jeannie…to future grandchild.” She writes on the lid of the tub, “BABY?”
And that, as every woman could tell you, is still the question.
Featured Image: An abandoned farmhouse, 2005; photograph by Eugene Richards from The Run-On of Time, the catalog of a recent exhibition that originated at the George Eastman Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It is distributed by Yale University Press.
Originally published as “Our Bodies Were Born into Hard Labor,” in February 21 issue of NYRB.
Caroline Fraser’s most recent book, Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, was published in December. (February 2019)