As author and journalist Sarah Smarsh explains in her powerful nonfiction debut “Heartland,” she grew up a “poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality,” moving in and around Wichita more than 20 times during her childhood in the 1980s and ’90s. A fifth-generation farm kid, Smarsh’s life was steeped in poverty and uncertainty, despite all the adults in her life working full time. In her world, it was all hands-on deck, and Smash learned early on the value of being useful, helping with everything from farmwork and construction projects to firework sales and mortgage paperwork. But in addition to her tenacious work ethic, Smash learned something else standing alongside her family: that the work done by the people she loved so much was often undervalued, as were the people themselves.
“It’s a hell of a thing to feel,” she writes. “To grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses... while your own body can’t go to the doctor. Even though no one complained or maybe even realized it, I could feel that the people around me knew they were viewed as disposable.”
Smarsh writes regularly about socioeconomic status for publications like The Guardian and The New York Times, and she brings this exacting style to “Heartland,” routinely diverging from her personal narrative and into topics like 1980s farm policies. These smooth departures balance out the otherwise poetic language and keep readers grounded in the day-to-day struggles Smarsh and her family (and millions like them) faced. While the book lags a bit in the middle, “Heartland” is 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.
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