This is actually a re-read for me. I read Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth when it was first released in 2018, and I was honestly on the fence as to whether I liked it or not. The first time around, I enjoyed reading the book and Smarsh's writing style, I also found her overall story interesting enough, but wasn't sure as to whether I agreed with her opinions and politics expressed in the book. Once finished, I placed it on one of my shelves and there it sat for three years, surviving several book overhauls. I couldn't bring myself to pass it along as I did enjoy reading the book and there was a part of me that didn't feel finished with it yet.
Three years later, and I was on a "re-reading spree" when I decided to give Heartland another try. I went into this second reading with a different intention. I wanted to put aside my own beliefs and not get hung up so much on what I disagreed with Smarsh on, and just read what she had to say. I went in with more respect and a desire to understand, and I ended up relating a great deal to her experiences and the emotions tied to them as I also grew up in a lower middle class, rural family.
This time around, I found Heartland fascinating and informative. Smarsh has a writing style that is precise in delivering its message. It flows and is written in such a way that it feels like Smarsh is speaking directly to one person, which may be due to the fact that the book is actually written to an unborn daughter/inner child whom Smarsh has given the name August. I found the approach fascinating, and it made the book more personal. Heartland is written through the lens of a woman who has not only overcome the barriers of poverty and circumstance, but as someone who has broken many dysfunctional family cycles as well. She makes quite a few valid points and provides credible, well-researched information to back them up.
One sentiment in particular that Smarsh shared that I truly related to was that we may have been poor, but we had pride and always tried to look nice and clean, and kept our houses tidy and clean. That's what my family always tried to do, we may not have had a whole lot, but we still had pride in what we did have. People these days have appropriated the country/rural lifestyle, wearing jeans with pre-made holes in them and hats that are merely accessories, and decorating their homes with rustic tools and other "country" items, that real country folk have out of necessity, leaving those who actually live that way of life scratching their heads.
Heartland is often billed as a book about a girl that grew up poor in rural Kansas who rose above it all and "got out", but that's not what this book is really about, and Sarah Smarsh is the first to say this. Her rural home wasn't something to "get out of" or escape. This book isn't about how she rose above it all to be successful, it's about the impact that poverty has had not only on her own life, but also generations of her family. It's about how poverty and the toxic, dysfunctional cycles running through her family lines have impacted her own decisions and actions. Heartland ends up being a fascinating sociological study and an interesting memoir all in one. It was a great read, one I'm glad I gave a second chance to. Sometimes it's not a problem with the book, but rather your own hang ups getting in the way. This book has earned its place on my shelf.
Born and raised in Upstate NY, Liz is a freelance writer. She has written for websites, blogs, and magazines for the last 10 years. She also acts as a proofreader and beta reader for several authors, all the while working on her first book.