Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

As it happened, I heard Ehrenreich, who is a pretty big deal and author of NICKEL AND DIMED, (a book for which she went undercover among the American poor), speak at Johns Hopkins University–to a group of us communications folks. I remember thinking the statistics and stories she shared that day seemed to me like from another world–foreign–and yet her research centered on the poor of Baltimore, not far from where I live now.

In contrast, there was no going undercover for Smarsh, born into a family for whom there were no bootstraps big enough to change their class: working poor. From the book flap summary:

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother–and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita–she gives us a unique look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.

I can’t say I loved this book, because it’s not a book to be loved. It’s not easy to read about statistics writ personal on the author’s immediate and extended family–generation after generation–in the way of teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

Smarsh is born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, and yet, instead of each generation doing better, it seems the opposite was true. Such is the power of the stranglehold of poverty–as destructive as the tornadoes that so often whip through the author’s home state.

I come to memoirs looking for at least two of three elements: a story worth telling, with logic to support, and emotional resonance to make me feel. That HEARTLAND is Smarsh’s story, which she supports through sound journalistic research, and narrates in such a lyrical way, made this a very satisfying read.

The swirling clouds were just above my head, reaching down with little arms…They spun around a middle void, stretched and grabbed at one another, pulling back into themselves–the beginnings of a funnel.

A supercell, as meteorologists call it, swirling over the plains is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Sarah Smarsh

Note: I didn’t say the memoir was an easy read. Passages that begin “Being broke has a way of separating families…” made me recall the ups and downs of my mom’s upbringing, born just 15 years after the worst year of the Great Depression. The last of four kids, she was sent away for a time to live with relatives, something not all that unusual then. And then there was the emotional poverty in families touched by the Depression and the use of alcohol as a balm. In this way, Smarsh’s story feels like a story out of time, like something from high school history stories of the Dust Bowl. But no. The story of American poverty and its tendrils is, unfortunately, evergreen.

How to break the cycle? How to scale that steep slope representing the hierarchy of needs? For Smarsh, like so many others, the answer lay in “getting out,” getting an education. Of course, it’s not as easy–or easy on the heart–as all that. Because getting out means leaving behind.

…as college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a similar disconnect with power. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.

Sarah Smarsh

Smarsh’s HEARTLAND and so many stories coming out of the American Midwest right now are sounding the alarm. Let’s hope we wake up.

Now it’s your turn? Have you read Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND or another book on the American Midwest, on class? What are you reading right now?

For ideas, here’s a must-read list of 100 books featuring the Midwest at Book Riot.

Comment below–I always love to get ideas for new reads!

16 thoughts on “The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

  1. I enjoyed reading your take on Sarah’s book. I haven’t read it, though, so no thoughts to share in comparison to yours. Thanks for the link to the list – I was disappointed to see that Michael Perry’s books weren’t listed. I probably relate well to his small-town stories since we’re the same age and live within 40 miles of each other. Yet, have never met. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! Well, you should make your own booklist and begin with Perry. I wonder if he ever reads in your area–maybe you could meet him one of these days. I just saw an author tweet on Twitter, saying something to the effect of: when you love an author’s work and find their Twitter handle, email, etc., you should go ahead and tell them. Even very successful authors have down days, sometimes, and knowing that they connected with readers can help. Hope you have a lovely day–reading or doing anything else!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, he has read in our area, I missed both times, but I do keep an eye out for him to appear. That’s nice to know – I should reach out and do that. I’m not a Twitter user, how do you keep up with blogging, writing, twittering, and Facebook?! PS – you always brighten my day! Thank you!

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  2. I resisted Twitter for a while, but that’s where the literary agents are, so… It’s a multi-tasking mess most days! And so am I! Off to single-task for a while. I always enjoy our chats, Shelley! Thank you~R.


  3. I haven’t read it, but I found your post to be a wake-up call of sorts. Or perhaps reminder is better. My husband and I drive clunkers and go to thrift stores to be able to afford to put Luke through private school. When I read your words, I thought the sacrifice we made will likely result in a class change for him, not that I consciously thought of it that way. But I do agree that class can be a stranglehold. The opportunities the boys have in Luke’s private school are incredible. They are only available to one who works hard, but there it is. Thanks for making me think! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The one part that really hit home in that memoir of Smarsh’s–speaking of high school and college prep–is when Smarsh is looking at colleges. Actually, she just looks at the brochures, because she can’t afford to actually visit any schools, and with her parents not having gone to college, and Smarsh’s having gone to a poor country high school where that’s not the norm–her parents didn’t even know that college visits are something families do. And, then when Smarsh does go off to college, she moves herself. So, a combo of class and access–both geographically and economically–that contribute to how hard it is to “get out,” but she would take issue with that phrase, because she lives in Kansas today. I know of your son’s school by its excellent reputation–and also my sister used to live in Ohio City. It seems your sacrifices are already paying off in wonderful opportunities for him. Very exciting! I hope you’re relishing in his successes, which you share! And thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Luke only visited close schools. One college paid to fly him, and the others we sucked it up and paid to visit once he was accepted. Bass ackwards but it worked out. I need to read Smarsh.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A terrific writeup…I can’t wait to read this book…I posted a story about Paul Theroux’s journey into the back roads of America’s south, and it was sobering indeed, as I imagine this book will be – but I will read it because we must bring light to the things that must change…anyway, here is my review of “Deep South” if you are interested –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, John! I really enjoyed that post of yours on the Deep South memoir–some of those abandonment photos are stunning, even if they capture places that are barely in use anymore. Sometimes I take issue with travel journalism because it doesn’t show real places with real (oftentimes, as in the case in the Deep South memoir you covered, poor and old people). But we can’t forget about these places (or forget about these places until an election (OH))!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As I type these words, a severe thunderstorm is blowing in, then out, then whipping back around again — life in the Midwest! LOL

    I have seen Smarsh’s book on the table at B&N, and my hands keep wanting to pick it up. Now that I’ve read your post here I think they should follow instinct. 🙂

    I looked over the list from the link you provided. Lots of good stuff there. The only author I might suggest is Mike Martone, who teaches at Alabama, but who’s from northern Indiana, my neck of the woods. In fact, he grew up a block away from where I live (I knew his younger brother), and if there’s anything to the number of writers who can occupy a square mile (or rather: city block), I am SOL. 😆 Mike got there first, and is really, really good! I’d recommend anything he’s written, but Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List and Alive and Dead in Indiana are my two favorites.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is it weird that I kinda miss tornado drills? Yes, I know what you mean about that Midwestern weather! Some of my favorite parts of Smarsh’s memoir are the parts about weather–and, of course, farmers’ kids know all about weather. I know I’ve heard of Martone–now I need to read him. So cool you grew up nearby–something writerly in the water maybe! So many wonderful Midwestern reads! Really I don’t know Indiana well at all–only French Lick, where we vacationed a couple summers as kids. (Yes, we did see Larry Bird’s birthplace, a shack of a house, really.) My uncle managed a hotel and resort, so we swam and did kids’ stuff. I think the resort is even grander now–but the area outside, the town, I wonder if it’s any better off these days? Thanks, as always, for humoring my posts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, I’ve never been to French Lick, but I’ve heard it’s a great place. Actually, except for the 6 weeks I went to IU (dropped out, homesick) I haven’t been to much of southern Indiana. I guess Tornado Alley is now heating up, but we’ve been lucky so far the funnel clouds aren’t coming as far north (of course, I feel sorry for those more south, in the path). Yes, Martone’s a good guy. Read him, you’ll get a good feel for my hometown, Fort Wayne. Every time I read him I always think, “Gosh, you can do this! Write about your city, your landmarks,” etc. LOL I know that’s naive of me, but I’m always amazed.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I may just have to read “Heartland”, because I’m wondering how it compares to my great-grandfather’s memoirs about growing up on the family farm. You have me interested!

    Liked by 1 person

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