Book review: Heartland

I hadn’t heard about Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh before I ran across it in the new library releases.  It’s written in the same vein as Educated and Hillbilly Elegy — tl;dr, rural/small town/conservative child grows up, gets exposed to the world outside their insular community, realizes through post-secondary education and exposure to the world outside their hometown that American “conservatism” has a heavy hand in keeping them and their families in poverty through messaging, legal policy, and rigid social pressures, then transforms into a liberal/progressive/slightly less blindered conservative.  Taken by itself, it would be a good story; taken in the company of similar published memoirs on the market right now, it’s okay (Educated was better, IMO).  However, it’s interesting to see the parallels between all three books, even though they were written about different geographical areas

  • Small, insular communities will little to no representation in the media
  • RESENTMENT (!!!) that they aren’t financially rewarded for the work that they do, and contempt for people who don’t work physically so hard but are more financially prosperous
  • Lack of access to medical care, either because of financial circumstances or because providers aren’t accessible
  • Communities that are highly religious on the surface
  • No understanding or information about how to navigate higher education or “privileged” society
  • Communities/institutions undercut by corporatization and/or legal policy; big business monopolies/organizations driving small/family businesses out of business due to market manipulation
  • Drug/alcohol abuse and addiction

The only “new” thing I really came away with from this book is the reverence with which her communities holds the idea of being self-made and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  I imagine that that idea is still around (the author was born in 1980), but I have a feeling that the Millenials and iGeneration kids are going to have some feelings about that line.

There were also a few things that bothered me.  Yes, her parents were poor in cash flow, but they owned a house and land, and her grandparents owned a farm.  Keeping that kind of capital investment, even when you have to work hard for it, puts you in a far different category than the urban poor described in Evicted.  Also, she talks about how she was a first-generation college student and didn’t really understand the application and scholarship process, but then says her stepdad had two older children who had started college in the years before her.  She also talks very little about her high school years, when she was in a stable household.

Some parts of the book are very well-written, and some are just … disjointed and non-linear.  She uses a strange affectation of talking to her imaginary child (to be clear, this child never existed and was entirely a mental concept she used to keep herself on the straight and narrow throughout her OWN childhood, which is less weird when you think how her mother and grandmother were both teen mothers) throughout the book.  I listened to the audiobook and it would completely distract me and pull me out of the flow of the story; other online reviewers have said it made the book hard to read because the second-person address was super-confusing.  Also, she would have long stretches of memoir, and then just toss in a bunch of hard economic facts and/or political commentary.  It was good to have the information framing what was happening in her life, but it was a jarring tone change.

Overall, I gave it 3/5 stars — it was a good book and kept me interested in her life, and I think it was an interesting counterpoint in the set of books linked above, but nothing earth-shattering.

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One thought on “Book review: Heartland

  1. I have this one in my TBR pile, so I was interested to read your review! I think what attracted me to yet another Educated/Hillbilly Elegy-ish book was the Kansas/rural/farming setting… much more my world (of my upbringing, anyway) than the other two books. I thought “Educated” was one of the best books I read last year, though — hard to top! Anyway, thanks for your thoughts & I will keep them in mind when I get around to reading this!

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