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Book Review

Book Review: 'Heartland'


Sarah Smarsh’s debut book Heartland, a memoir of growing up in a working class/poor family in south central Kansas, has just been long listed for this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction. Born in 1980, the daughter of a teenage mother, Smarsh uses her own experience to show us the divide between the middle-class and the working poor. She incisively cuts through our assumptions about a mother who works three jobs that are hard on her body; about a farmer or laborer harmed by government policies--or lack thereof--all burdened by the emotional toll of making ends meet.

Smarsh’s writing brings us the smell of the soil, and a ride in a car without air conditioning, trudging down I-70 en route to Limon, Colorado. We meet the beloved Grandma Betty--just 32 years old when Sarah was born--and Aunt Pug, and we care about their skewed pragmatism, their grit and drive, their humanity and their flawed nature. And we know they love their family.

A lifetime of experience and 15 years of writing and editing went into creating this book. The writing is elegant, it is artful, it is hard-- because being poor is hard.  Smarsh succeeds in capturing Wichita and the region, and she articulates the divide between the middle class and working poor. And she acknowledges a number of public school teachers who recognized her talent, opening up opportunities to broaden her world. They can take credit for this book as well.