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Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
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Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  8,568 ratings  ·  1,521 reviews
During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the ...more
Hardcover, 290 pages
Published September 18th 2018 by Scribner
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Alden Glancing at the top ten reviews, it seems like the number one beef people have is that they don't like the way she addressed much of the book to the…moreGlancing at the top ten reviews, it seems like the number one beef people have is that they don't like the way she addressed much of the book to the imaginary daughter she might have had as a teenager. Personally, I *liked* that approach. She identified a major factor of multigenerational poverty, and kept shoving it in the reader's face, as if to say "pay attention! this is important!" Perhaps living in Wichita predisposed me to like this book.

Also, Tara Westover's more visceral "Educated" was published just a year earlier, and would attract a very similar readership. So maybe some people were comparing this very good book with a really over-the-top excellent one. (less)
Macaela It looks like it will be released in September, however you are able to pre-order now.…moreIt looks like it will be released in September, however you are able to pre-order now. (less)

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Richard Derus
Oct 23, 2018 rated it liked it
Real Rating: 2.5* of five

TODAY, 9 JUNE 2019 available on Kindle for $2.99

DNF @ 41%

Entirely because the book is written as though to the author's unborn—nay, unconceived—daughter. It's simply too cutesy-poopsie-woopsie a conceit for me. I love the style of the author's sentences, and I appreciate the depth and quality of her research. This topic...the immense and widening gap between Haves and Have Nots, the cultural forces behind the pernicious lie of class, the racism inherent in judging rural
Sep 07, 2018 rated it it was ok
tl;dr: I was really excited about Heartland but a gimmick makes it fall flat.

I was giddy when I heard about Heartland--finally, a book had come along with the power of Nickled and Dimed!

Sadly, despite the glowing blurb from Barbara Ehrenreich, Heartland is not that powerful. Even for a memoir, it lacks impact

There is one thing Ms. Smarsh does well in Heartland, and that's provide a nuanced look into the women of her immediate family. She's clear on their weaknesses and also very clearly proud
Jan 09, 2020 rated it liked it
Heartland is Sarah Smarsh's memoir of growing up poor in rural Kansas, herself the youngest of generations of poor women, and the effect that systematic poverty has on her people. The book contains some interesting points about growing up rural and poor, and includes some eye-opening anecdotes about herself and her family.

And yet, I'm not sure this book ever rises above the sum of its parts. Yes, there are some interesting tidbits, but I'm not sure Smarsh ever really consolidates them into
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"The American Dream has a price tag on it. 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.

This is the book I'd hoped Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis would be but wasn't. Sarah Smarsh grew up poor in a dysfunctional farming family in Kansas. In this book, she talks about her childhood, what is what like growing up in an unstable and
This is a memoir that has really good content — a great discussion of social class and poverty in middle America — but the author's decision to write the book as if she were addressing her unborn child drove me bonkers.*

And yet, Sarah Smarsh has a good life story to share, so I kept reading and tried to ignore the pretentious writing style. Sarah grew up in rural Kansas in a hardworking family that was constantly trying to stay afloat. Sarah says that at a young age, after seeing so many women
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth” is a resounding story by Sarah Smarsh of her family life, heritage and farming culture on the Kansas prairie. With the passage of the Homestead Act (1862) over 270 million acres of land was available for settlement on the American plains. Settlers could receive up to 160 acres of land at no cost if they lived and cultivated their land for a period of five years. Smarsh, raised on family farmland, wrote that her ...more
Clif Hostetler
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
This is a very well written memoir that not only recounts memories of growing up in Kansas (30 miles west of Wichita), but ponders the plight of working class poor with a deeply humane sensitivity that offers clarifying insight into social conditions of the heartland. In addition to the intimate details of family history the book’s narrative reviews the history of the Homestead Act, the progressive politics of early Kansas statehood, the farming crisis of the 80s, the Reaganomic swerve toward ...more
Oct 04, 2018 rated it did not like it
I read this book with much anticipation after hearing the author interviewed on the New York Times Book Review Podcast. The small town upbringing, the succeeding despite difficult challenges, being the first of your clan to earn a college degree, etc., rang true with me. But I was disappointed in the execution and underwhelmed by the writing.

The contrived literary device of speaking to a never-born child, (usually out of the clear blue and without warning), was startling and distracting. It
Jennifer Blankfein
Dec 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Follow my reviews on Book Nation by Jen.

It is possible that I have overdosed on stories about indigence and the cultural divide, so for me, Sarah Smarsh’s message was strong yet her story felt repetitive. Smarsh tells us about her family and how their extreme poverty lead to generations of teenaged pregnancies, drinking, abuse, lack of education, bad or absent parenting, and all the while her family worked hard to live. We learn everything through the author
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
From the moment I head about this book I knew I had to read it, because I knew in a sense it would be a book about me and my people. Other than Julene Bair's One Degree West, there aren't many books about what it is like growing up in rural Kansas, "flyover country."

At one point Sarah Smarsh writes, "there was no language for whatever I represented on campus." Like Sarah, I grew up poor (though not in the kind of abject poverty and abuse that she did), but still poor in rural central Kansas on
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As a lifelong Kansan who came from a working class family in Topeka but knew nothing of the life of the rural parts of my state, I declare this essential reading. Essential not just for Kansans like me, but for so many who have no idea what rural poverty looks like.

Sarah Smarsh recounts the story of her family--most notably the women who held the family together--while also weaving it into the larger dynamics of an increasingly crueler American capitalism that began with Reagan and continues to
Oct 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
National Book Award for Nonfiction Longlist 2018. Smarsh has chosen to write about her own family’s multigenerational struggle in Kansas to get ahead by working any way that they could to make ends meet. She focuses particularly on her female relatives and how their decisions contributed to their poverty—her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all had their first child at 16-years-old. Having children at such a young age causes them to drop out of school, assume financial responsibilities ...more
(3.5) If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then Heartland deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a ...more
Jun 03, 2018 rated it liked it
I like reading about lives that are very different from my own. Sarah Smarsh is a good writer, and it was interesting to learn her family history and her views on the world. But I really wish this book had been organized chronologically instead of thematically. She jumped around in time, which made it hard to keep track of her many relatives and what they were doing. And I’m not really sure what each chapter’s theme was supposed to be, since they were each so long and had multiple messages. ...more
Melissa Stacy
I purchased a copy of the 2018 memoir, "Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth," by Sarah Smarsh, after this book became a National Book Award nonfiction finalist in 2018.

This memoir was massively disappointing, and overall frustrating to read. If you have read any of these nonfiction books -- "Nickel and Dimed," "Evicted," "Hillbilly Elegy," "The Other America," "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," "Random Family," "Just Mercy," "Between the World and
Jaclyn Crupi
Dec 05, 2018 rated it liked it
If you’re thinking of writing your memoir about class and poverty to your not-yet-born/never-to-be-born daughter ’August’ my advice is – don’t. It’s weird and unneccessarily distracting.
Janilyn Kocher
Aug 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Heartland is a great read. I enjoyed Smarsh's family history immensely. However, I'm not buying her assertion that she grew up in poverty. I suppose my definition of poverty differs from hers. She always had a roof over her head and food to eat. Smarsh never had to live in a car or under a bridge as many people have. From my perspective, Smarsh was rich in love and perseverance that she learned from her family. Various family members spent a fortune on booze and smokes over the years, which ...more
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Heartland belongs on the shelf next to books like Desmond’s Evicted, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed. Smarsh’s book provides a strong voice for and about breaking the destructive cycles of families, the economics of class, and the fact that birth should not be the reigning mark of future prospects. Smarsh is a talented writer who tells the story of her grandparents, parents, and extended family with clarity and warmth.

For the full review:
Elizabeth A.G.
Dec 04, 2018 rated it liked it
This is an inspiring memoir that not only reveals the multi-generational familial story of the author's life, but also delves into the greater societal issues of the working poor. Sara Smarsh confronts, in hindsight and from personal experience, the economic woes of farming and minimum wage work in the changing national narrative of business, profits, and class inequality in the Kansas heartland. Economic policy changes as in the Homestead Act, the more progressive Kansas politics, the 1980 ...more
Nov 08, 2018 rated it it was ok
I had such high hopes, given the reviews I'd read and the accolades this book is getting., no.

First, it's written as a letter to her non-existent child, which is a completely unearned gimmick that takes what seems like a serious memoir and turns it into being too cute by half. But that's fine, because so is the writing--so many tortured metaphors, so many too-cute turns of phrases, it read like an extended New Yorker piece.

When she's writing about her family and history, it's engaging.
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
From the NBA shortlist for non-fiction comes this memoir about growing up poor in a “flyover” state. While I can agree with a lot of what she says about growing up in a rural setting, I sometimes felt she over-dramatized some of it. That in addition to the weird way of talking to her ‘daughter’ throughout made this more of a so-so read for me.
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
This memoir tells a story that is seldom heard - a story of the lives of poor people in America who are white. Sarah Smarsh grew up on a farm in rural Kansas, moving between there and Wichita throughout her childhood. Her mother and grandmother had both become mothers at age 16. Sarah escaped that life, but to her credit her memoir focuses on telling the story of poor Kansas farmers.

The best part of this memoir is the focus on women living in poverty. Women who cannot get ahead, or ever complete
John Bohnert
Dec 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
I would have enjoyed this book much more if it was linear.
The book made me appreciate how lucky I was growing up in my blue collar family.
We were poor. A family of five living in an eighteen-foot-long trailer in a trailer park.
The trailer didn't even have a bathroom. We had an icebox that needed blocks of ice.
My folks didn't do drugs, drink, or even smoke cigarettes like many of the characters in this book.
Dad worked hard but we lived paycheck to paycheck.
My parents valued education even though
What if Hillbilly Elegy went further and actually included discussion on social class and discrimination against poor and working class people, especially women? Heartland explores why even if some people do leave poverty, most don't, why the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative is not a response to the behemoth of class oppression and social disdain that working people face every day. Don't read Hillbilly Elegy to "understand middle America." Read Heartland if you want a more accurate ...more
I wanted to like this book, because the author has such an important point of view to share, but she has made a muddle of it. I understand memoirs not being in chronological order, especially from chapter to chapter, but this author jumps around from page to page. I made it to page 225 of 288 before I skimmed the rest, because I couldn't handle the jumping around anymore.

A family tree would have been nice. Her maternal grandmother is only like 8 years older than her father, and her paternal
Jul 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Many years ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and it knocked my socks off. When I saw Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland had been favorably compared to it and recommended to people who liked it, I jumped at the opportunity (provided by Scribner and NetGalley) to read it in exchange for my honest review.

First of all, thanks a LOT, Sarah! I was awake most of the night reading, then thinking about this book! Like The Glass Castle, so many things in it resonated strongly with me while it both
Dana Stabenow
Apr 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Poverty doesn't just happen; it's engineered. Most laws are made by the privileged few to benefit their own class, and even those few representatives and bureaucrats of good intentions have no idea how life is lived on a scale so far beneath their own, so that the laws they pass to help never do and nearly always end in being punitive, which just helps to more institutionalize the poverty.

Smarsh is a fifth generation Kansas farm girl whose main goal from the time she was a child is to make a
Sep 17, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, nonfiction
Strong initial effort by author Sarah Smart combines memoir with facts and figures to further explain her family’s hardships over the last century. This combination approach is a difficult one to pull off because readers are constantly pulled from the engaging family narrative and flung head first into demographic data explaining the larger state/national issues. But the most disruptive element of the book is the almost constant reference to the author’s imaginary daughter. The first time the ...more
Aug 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Sensitive, introspective, and sometimes wistful memoir of growing up poor and doing without in rural Kansas during the 1980s. Lots of family dysfunction but there's a resilient attitude and practical approach also at work. I like the feeling of place on the Kansas farms and small towns. Sarah Smarsh writes well.
Oct 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
In a sense it's a shame that this book is being marketed as a window into understanding the white working class. Lumping this title in with crappy, moralistic screeds (I'm thinking mainly here of Hillbilly Elegy) in order to sell more books doesn't do Smarsh's work justice. It's a beautifully written memoir, you could teach it in an English class, and it explores so much more than just the white working class as we "understand" it through repetitive New York Times feature stories. (And it was ...more
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Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times and many others. A native of rural Kansas, Smarsh is a frequent speaker and commentator on economic inequality and the news media. She lives in Kansas.
“Few people knew how much I was struggling both emotionally and financially, because I didn’t talk to anyone about it or even understand how bad off I was.” 2 likes
“But the American Dream has a price tag on it. 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.” 2 likes
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