Heartland

A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

About The Book

*Finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize*
*Instant New York Times Bestseller*

*Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Post, BuzzFeed, Shelf Awareness, Bustle, and Publishers Weekly*

An essential read for our times: an eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in America that will deepen our understanding of the ways in which class shapes our country.

Sarah Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side, and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working class Americans living in the heartland.

During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed the freedom of a country childhood, but observed the painful challenges of the poverty around her; untreated medical conditions for lack of insurance or consistent care, unsafe job conditions, abusive relationships, and limited resources and information that would provide for the upward mobility that is the American Dream. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves with clarity and precision but without judgement, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country.

A beautifully written memoir that combines personal narrative with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland examines the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

“A deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works—including Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville—that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline...Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra” (The New York Times Book Review).

Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Heartland includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less. Her personal history affirms the corrosive impact intergenerational poverty can have on individuals, families, and communities, and she explores this idea as lived experience, metaphor, and level of consciousness.

Smarsh was born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up as the daughter of a dissatisfied young mother and raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the heartland. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland is an uncompromising look at class, identity, and the particular perils of having less in a country known for its excess.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the beginning of the memoir, Smarsh writes that, as a child, “I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world.” What did this other voice tell her? What did the people in her house and on the news say about her?

2. Smarsh is the product of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s side. She writes that she was like a penny in a purse, “not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production.” How did this legacy of teenage pregnancy affect her family’s social and economic mobility?

3. Smarsh and her brother were each born just weeks before Reagan won an election, and his economic policies had a tremendous impact on her childhood. Can you describe what that impact looked like?

4. Smarsh describes an incident in which she, as a toddler, pulled a chest of drawers onto herself, forcing her barely postpartum mother to injure herself lifting it up. Smarsh’s father was at work. How does this accident demonstrate the dangers of rural poverty and the fault lines in Jeannie and Nick’s relationship? Are the two related?

5. There were many, many car wrecks in the author’s life and in the lives of members of her family. Why do you think that is?

6. Teresa, Smarsh’s paternal grandmother, had untreated “woman problems” in her youth, according to Nick. What kinds of problems might he have been referring to? How was life in rural Kansas different for women than it was for their farmer husbands?

7. Smarsh writes, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kinds of people.” Do you think that’s true? How does Smarsh straddle that line?

8. Betty often said that homeless people should “get a job,” even though she and her family struggled economically—and even though she often gave money to those same people. How do you think her values were affected by the class system?

9. Do you believe, as Smarsh writes, that “in America . . . the house is the ultimate status symbol, and ownership is a source of economic pride”? What do you think the family’s transience meant to Nick, Jeannie, Smarsh, and her brother?

10. How did Bob’s newspaper job and middle-class stability affect the family’s economic situation?

11. Many of the women in Smarsh’s family endured physical violence at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. In what ways does gendered violence inhibit economic stability?

12. Smarsh writes that the women in her family had an “old wisdom” that had more to do with intuition than knowledge or education. Where do you see this in action in the lives of female characters?

13. Consider the specific reality of Smarsh’s life as a high-achieving high school student. What pushed her to excel?

14. What social realities did Smarsh meet in college? How was her life different from those of her fellow students, and how was it similar?

15. Smarsh argues that “this country has failed its children.” Do you agree? How does her story demonstrate that, or fail to?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Consider your own economic background. How did economic opportunities, or the lack of them, shape your experience as a child? Discuss these experiences with the group.

2. Listen to a short interview with Sarah Smarsh about national identity on WNYC: https://wnycstudios.org/story/out-of-many-there-one-american-identity.
About The Author
Photograph © Paul Andrews

Sarah Smarsh has written about socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Texas ObserverPacific Standard, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and many other publications. A recent Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a former professor of nonfiction writing, Smarsh is a frequent speaker on economic inequality and media narratives relating this topic. She lives in Kansas. Heartland is her first book.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Scribner (September 2018)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501133114

Browse Related Books

S&S eDWO
Raves and Reviews

"A deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works – including Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville – that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline. . . . With deft primers on the Homestead Act, the farming crisis of the ‘80s, and Reaganomics, Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra."
New York Times Book Review

"Heartland is [Smarsh's] map of home, drawn with loving hands and tender words. This is the nation’s class divide brought into sharp relief through personal history ... Heartland is a thoughtful, big-hearted tale ... 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."
Washington Post

"Something about Sarah Smarsh’s writing makes you light up inside. You feel her joy and grief, fury and hope ... That is how I felt reading Smarsh’s book: as if the world could wait until I got to the end. Smarsh’s book belongs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as a volume with a transformative vision—a message for a blind and uncaring America, which needs to wake up. Hopefully we will not just open our eyes. Hopefully we will also change.
The American Conservative

"Smart, nuanced and atmospheric ... 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."
—NPR Books

"In her sharply-observed, big-hearted memoir, Heartland, Smarsh chronicles the human toll of inequality, her own childhood a case study ... what this book offers is a tour through the messy and changed reality of the American dream, and a love letter to the unruly but still beautiful place she called home."
Boston Globe

"Sarah Smarsh's intelligent, affecting memoir ... [asks]: What's the matter with the American dream? ... Understanding widening wealth inequality in our nation is a project with which anyone who has a conscience should be concerned — a robust, expansive middle class is vital to democracy, and arguably to the functioning of our particular Constitution. Smarsh’s Heartland is a book we need: an observant, affectionate portrait of working-class America that possesses the power to resonate with readers of all classes."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Combining heartfelt memoir with eye-opening social commentary, Smarsh braids together the stories of four generations of her rural red-state family."
People

"In a memoir written with loving candor, the daughter of generations of serially impoverished Kansas wheat farmers and working-poor single mothers chronicles a family's unshakeable belief in the American dream and explains why it couldn't help but fail them."
Ms. Magazine

Heartland recounts five generations of Smarsh exploits in the farmlands of Kansas, from pioneer days to the Obama era, when the author finally breaks into the middle class. The book is a personal, decades-long story of America’s coordinated assault on its underclass ... There is rich soil in America’s flyover states, and if we follow Smarsh’s path, we will find families like mine and the author’s, full of sensible, resilient women who may be disenfranchised, but who are also uniquely poised and equipped to aid in the revolution, and in our collective liberation."
L.A. Times

"Smarsh’s book, a soul-baring meditation on poverty and class in America, tells the stories of her family’s wounded women, their farming men and her own wrenching choice to snap the three-generation cycle of teenage motherhood into which she was born ... Her moving memoir can be seen as the female, Great Plains flip side to 2016’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: a loving yet unflinching look at the marginalized people who grow America’s food, build its houses and airplanes but never seem to share fully in its prosperity."
New York Post, Best of 2018

"The subtitle of Sarah Smarsh's "Heartland" is "A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth." Her timing is impeccable, given the country's growing divide around class. Her goal is nothing less than disputing the belief that some people — specifically "white trash" — are just meant to be, that the bad choices they make regarding sex or alcohol or jobs or education are, well, practically in their DNA and not the result of cultural forces ... This is a provocative, well-researched book for our times."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Smarsh seamlessly interweaves [her family's] tales with her own experiences and the political happenings of the day to tell a story that feels complete, honest and often poetic ... Heartland shines brightest in moments like these, when colorful anecdotes bring childhood memories vividly to life. Beyond their entertainment value, these stories flesh out nuanced characters in complex situations, dispelling stereotypes about the working class. Smarsh bookends these engaging tales with social commentary and historical information ... Heartland draws its strength from its storytelling and authority from its context and commentary."
Texas Observer

"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 [them]. "
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"An important, timely work that details a family, a landscape, and a country that has changed dramatically since Smarsh’s birth in 1980. Heartland puts a very human face on the issue of economic inequality while also serving as an outstretched hand of sorts across the economic divide, seeking to connect readers from all economic backgrounds through a shared American story."
Iowa City Gazette

"Reflects on epic issues and injustices of class, poverty, work, and coming-of-age ... Smarsh expands the conversation into the intimate territory of women's lives, examining the tribe of struggling, wounded, defiant, and strong Kansans into which she was born."
Women's Review of Books

"Heartland is an important book for this moment ... Smarsh emerges as a writer, most potently, in her vivid encounters with the ironies of working-class life — her reflections on what it means to live poor can turn startlingly poetic."
—EntertainmentWeekly.com

"A poignant look at growing up in a town 30 miles from the nearest city; learning the value and satisfaction of hard, blue-collar work, and then learning that the rest of the country see that work as something to be pitied; watching her young mother's frustration with living at the "dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty" and understanding that such a fate might be hers, too. This idea is the thread that Smarsh so gracefully weaves throughout the narrative; she addresses the hypothetical child she might or might not eventually have and in doing so addresses all that the next generation Middle Americans living in poverty will face."
—Buzzfeed

"You might have read Sarah Smarsh's viral New York Times op-ed, which deconstructed the myth of the "aggrieved laborer: male, Caucasian, conservative, racist, sexist" with reference to the experiences and opinions of her working-class father. In this memoir, she fully explores the impact of poverty on her family."
—Elle.com

"The difficulty of transcending poverty is the message behind this personal history of growing up in the dusty farmlands of Kansas, where "nothing was more painful ... than true things being denied" ... The takeaway? The working poor don't need our pity; they need to be heard above the din of cliché and without so-called expert interpretation. Smarsh's family are expert enough to correct any misunderstandings about their lives."
—Oprah.com

"Startlingly vivid ... an absorbing, important work in a country that needs to know more about itself."
Christian Science Monitor

"Brave and heart-wrenching, this book gives a voice to a group of people too easy to ignore."
Columbus Dispatch

"Smarsh’s family history, tracing generations of teen mothers and Kansas farmer-laborers, forsakes detailed analysis of Trumpland poverty in favor of a first-person perspective colored by a sophisticated (if general) understanding of structural inequality. But most importantly, her project is shot through with compassion and pride for the screwed-over working class, even while narrating her emergence from it, diving into college instead of motherhood."
—Vulture

"Sarah Smarsh looks at class divides in the United States while sharing her own story of growing up in poverty before ultimately becoming a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her memoir doesn’t just focus on her own story; it also examines how multiple generations of her family were affected by economic policies and systems."
—Bustle

"In her memoir, journalist Sarah Smarsh offers a stark and timely look at the lives of the working poor ... Smarsh holds the deeply personal stories from her life growing up in rural Kingman County against the lens of Reaganomics. She maps her family’s lives alongside the demise of the family farm, defunded schools, and stagnant wages of the 1980s and 1990s."
The Hutchinson News

"If you’re working towards a deeper understanding of our ruptured country, then Sarah Smarsh’s memoir and examination of poverty in the American heartland is an essential read. Smarsh chronicles her childhood on the poverty line in Kansas in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the marginalization of people based on their income. When did earning less mean a person was worth less?"
—Refinery29

"Searing, timely and blazingly eloquent, Heartland challenges readers to look beyond tired stereotypes of the rural Midwest and is a testament to the value (on many levels) of "flyover country.""
—Shelf Awareness

"Blending memoir and reportage, a devastating and smart examination of class and the working poor in America, particularly the rural working poor. An excellent portrait of an often overlooked group."
—BookRiot.com

"Candid and courageous ... Smarsh's raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that has 'failed its children.'"
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[A] powerful message of class bias ... A potent social and economic message [is] embedded within an affecting memoir."
Kirkus, starred review

"“By interweaving memoir, history, and social commentary, this book serves as a countervailing voice to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which blamed individual choices, rather than sociological circumstances, for any one person ending up in poverty. Smarsh believes the American Dream is a myth, noting that success is more dependent on where you were born and to whom ... Will appeal to readers who enjoy memoirs and to sociologists. While Smarsh ends on a hopeful note, she offers a searing indictment of how the poor are viewed and treated in this country."
Library Journal

“You might think that a book about growing up on a poor Kansas farm would qualify as ‘sociology,’ and Heartland certainly does.… But this book is so much more than even the best sociology. It is poetry—of the wind and snow, the two-lane roads running through the wheat, the summer nights when work-drained families drink and dance under the prairie sky.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“Sarah Smarsh—tough-minded and rough-hewn—draws us into the real lives of her family, barely making it out there on the American plains. There’s not a false note. Smarsh, as a writer, is Authentic with a capital A .… This is just what the world needs to hear.”
—George Hodgman, author of Bettyville

“Sarah Smarsh is one of America’s foremost writers on class. Heartland is about an impossible dream for anyone born into poverty—a leap up in class, doubly hard for a woman. Smarsh’s journey from a little girl into adulthood in Kansas speaks to tens of thousands of girls now growing up poor in what so many dismiss as ‘flyover country.’ Heartland offers a fresh and riveting perspective on the middle of the nation all too often told through the prism of men.”
—Dale Maharidge, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning And Their Children After Them

Awards and Honors
  • Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

You may also like: True Stories