Smart, Unsentimental 'Heartland' Pays Tribute To America's Working Class

Oct 3, 2018
Originally published on October 5, 2018 1:53 pm

Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies; Smarsh's mother was just 17 when she had her.

During the 1980s, when Smarsh was growing up, family farms were going under in record numbers, falling victim to foreclosure and the rise of giant agribusiness. By then, Smarsh's dad was taking any job he could get, including roofing, driving semitrucks and disposing of poisonous industrial solvents — a job that almost killed him.

As a family, the Smarshes were just hanging on, living below the poverty line. But like many others in their situation, they considered themselves middle class. Looking back in wonderment, Smarsh writes:

That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country's lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn't exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.

Smarsh's new memoir is called Heartland and it tries to tell more of that "whole truth." As you can hear in Smarsh's voice, her book is smart, nuanced and atmospheric.

Though Smarsh is now a journalist with a graduate degree, she hasn't written the predictable "up by my own bootstraps" saga of individual perseverance and class ascent. Quite the contrary. Smarsh spent 15 years researching her memoir and her lens is unusually wide and deep.

For instance, when she describes that incident of her dad's on-the-job chemical poisoning, she also connects it to a larger story about how the rise of the nation's for-profit hospital system in the 1980s made regular medical care too costly for uninsured families like hers.

Thinking about her dad — as well as her relatives with missing teeth, swelling feet, mental illness and addictions — Smarsh says, "It's a hell of a thing ... to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board, while your own body can't go to the doctor."

With the same lyrical boldness, Smarsh talks about politics and race. She has no hesitation acknowledging white privilege, but she also notes the puzzlement, shot through with disdain, that she encountered once she got to college and began describing her farm childhood in Kansas.

Smarsh says folks of all backgrounds would say to her that they "had[n't]" heard anything like [her story] since The Grapes of Wrath." It's hard not to internalize that kind of contempt.

It was no surprise, then, that when Smarsh was admitted to the University of Kansas on a federally funded program for minority, first-generation, and low-income students, the small handful of white kids already in the program had given themselves the nickname "White Trash Scholars."

Heartland deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It's an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows — the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses — whose labor is often invisible or disdained.

It's also a tribute to the Kansas that Smarsh still feels connected to, a place of beer parties amid "fragrant rolls of wet hay" and tractors pulling sleds full of kids through the flat, snowy fields.

Trying to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of her white, working-class childhood in this memoir, Smarsh reflects: "We can't really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are." In Heartland, Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The white working class is very much in the news these days. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a new memoir called "Heartland" written by Sarah Smarsh that Maureen says goes far beyond the usual cliches about the working class. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of small family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies. Smarsh's own mother was just 17 when she had her. During the 1980s, when Smarsh was growing up, family farms were going under in record numbers, falling victim to foreclosure and the rise of giant agribusiness. By then, Smarsh's dad was taking any job he could get - roofing, driving semis and disposing of poisonous industrial solvents, a job that almost killed him. As a family, they were just hanging on, living below the poverty line. But like many others in their situation, they considered themselves middle class.

Looking back in wonderment, Smarsh says (reading) that we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a dollar rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country's lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn't exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that, but it was not the whole truth.

Smarsh's new memoir is called "Heartland," and it tries to tell more of that whole truth. As you can hear in Smarsh's voice, her book is smart, nuanced and atmospheric. Though Smarsh is now a journalist with a graduate degree, she hasn't written the predictable up-by-my-own-bootstraps saga of individual perseverance and class ascent - quite the contrary. Smarsh spent 15 years researching her memoir, and her lens is unusually wide and deep. So for instance, when she describes that incident of her dad's on-the-job chemical poisoning, she also connects it to a larger story about how the rise of the nation's for-profit hospital system in the 1980s made regular medical care too costly for uninsured families like hers.

Thinking about her dad, as well as her relatives with missing teeth, swelling feet, mental illness and addictions, Smarsh says (reading) it's a hell of a thing to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board while your own body can't go to the doctor.

With the same lyrical boldness, Smarsh talks about politics and race. She has no hesitation acknowledging white privilege, but she also notes the puzzlement shot through with disdain that she encountered once she got to college and began describing her farm childhood in Kansas. Smarsh says folks of all backgrounds would say to her that they hadn't heard anything like her story since "The Grapes Of Wrath." It's hard not to internalize that kind of contempt. It was no surprise then that when Smarsh was admitted to the University of Kansas on a federally funded program for minority, first-generation and low-income students, the small handful of white kids already in the program had given themselves the nickname white trash scholars.

"Heartland" deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It's an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows, the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses whose labor is often invisible or disdained. It's also a tribute to the Kansas that Smarsh still feels connected to, a place of beer parties out amidst fragrant rolls of wet hay and tractors pulling sleds full of kids through the flat, snowy fields.

Trying to capture the good, the bad and the ugly of her white working-class childhood in this memoir, Smarsh reflects that (reading) we can't really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are. In "Heartland," Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Heartland" by Sarah Smarsh. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the crisis at Facebook. Serious data breaches and the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016 have put the company and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, under scrutiny as the midterm elections approach. We'll talk with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about the data breach and about how Facebook became vulnerable to spreading disinformation. I hope you'll join us.

We'll close today's show with music by trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, who was a pioneer in blending jazz and Latin music. He played in a band led by Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri and in one of the leading New York salsa bands Conjunto Libre. He brought both music worlds together as the leader of The Fort Apache Band. Jerry Gonzalez died on Monday in Madrid from smoke inhalation caused by a fire in his house. He was 69.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GONZALEZ AND THE FORT APACHE BAND'S "BYE-YA")

GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GONZALEZ AND THE FORT APACHE BAND'S "BYE-YA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.