Something about Sarah Smarsh’s writing makes you light up inside. You feel her joy and grief, fury and hope. I felt that way the first time I read one of her essays—“Poor Teeth,” for Aeon Magazine, several years ago. Now, reading her new memoir Heartland, the pain and fury blazed inside me again.
This is a book about what it means to be poor. It is a book about what it means to be rural. And it is a book about what it means to be a woman. All three of those things, together, could have meant a very different life for Smarsh. And that is also what this book is about: the teenage motherhood and barely-getting-by rhythms that characterized existence for her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Smarsh chronicles their life stories with painstaking detail, depicting the pain and difficulty and dignity of their stories. She manages to share all of this while also making it clear why she did not want that story for herself. This book is about a legacy that has shaped Smarsh forever—but it’s also about her struggle to escape that legacy so that she doesn’t pass on the worst parts of it.
“The American Dream has a price tag on it,” she writes. “The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.”
Impoverished people…must do one of two things: concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them. It’s a hell of a choice, and initially I made mine based on my mother’s ideas. …[But] study after study that I found in my research for the class plainly said in hard numbers that, if you are poor, you are likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you work. As I examined the graphs over and over, my heart sped up with shock and anger. On the matter of my own country’s economic system, for all my family wisdom about what something ought to cost and who was peddling a con, I had been sold a bill of goods.
But Smarsh also makes clear that liberal policy hasn’t often been much better. Conservatives eschew the vices of big government and insist we should give the poor “a hand up, not a handout.” But big business and big government are both vicious beasts, and both have failed the impoverished at every turn—often by working together in order to enrich themselves. Those who work hard at jobs their entire lives are not able to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” despite Republican assurances. Yet the indignity associated with taking welfare is still unsavory to those who find themselves bound to it, as Smarsh explains:
[T]he liberal people I met in college often were missing another sort of information: What it feels like to pee in a cup to qualify for public benefits to feed your children. A teenager’s frustration when a dilapidated textbook is missing a page and there’s no computer in the house for finding the lesson online. The impossibility of paying a citation for expired auto insurance, itself impossible to pay despite fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.
It wasn’t that I’d been wrong to be suspicious of government programs, I realized, but that I’d been wrong to believe in the American Dream. They were two sides of the same trick coin—one promising a good life in exchange for your labor and the other keeping you just alive enough to go on laboring.
It’s a stinging critique of our broken system. Smarsh writes with the white-hot fury of moral indignation, rightly pointing out injustices that our society has propagated for far too long. But she also writes with a poignancy and compassion that drove me to tears more times than I can count. Smarsh eventually chose progressivism. She saw a greater acknowledgment of her people amongst progressives who campaign for universal health care and champion “women’s rights” than among Republicans who want more work requirements on food stamp recipients and who voted for a man who boasted about sexually assaulting women. Honestly, I do not blame her.
But Smarsh’s book is not just, or even primarily, about family. It also reminds us that legacy and community—as well as family—all matter. Her family imbued in her a grit, resilience, and determination that have served her well—even if their legacy also involved an emotional hurt and financial want that she had to struggle against.
One thought I had while reading Smarsh’s book is that placelessness features largely in the instability and resulting poverty of her story. She does an excellent job explaining why instability is so common among the poor—especially poor women. But I’ve also observed the way embeddedness in good communities (ones with lots of involved citizens, nurturing neighbors, and vibrant associations) has historically fostered better opportunities and social capital for those who stick around, even the poor. Unfortunately, these sorts of communities are on the decline throughout America—which means you have to get lucky in order to find a place like that, or to be born into it. I have increasingly realized that I was one of the lucky ones. There’s a privilege that comes not just from a family or an income, but from a place that nurtures and grows you. Fewer and fewer Americans live in those sorts of places.
It’s been a long time since I lost myself in a book. As a kid, it happened far more often, burying myself in my room for entire afternoons, unable to emerge until I had finished every page. 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.
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative, and it is re-published here with permission.