REVIEW: ‘Heartland’ shines light on Kansas poverty

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Cover image courtesy of simonandschuster.com.

Sarah Smarsh grew up bouncing around between Wichita and a family farm 30 miles west of the city. In “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” Smarsh explores her childhood through economics, agriculture and family history.

I placed a hold on this book at the Manhattan Public Library before it was ever released because I’d read about it online and fell in love with the honest way Smarsh wrote about Kansas and her life.

In Smarsh’s memoir, I found eye-opening depictions of poverty, beautiful descriptions of the state I love and an opportunity for deeper thinking.

Smarsh grounds her exploration of what it meant to live in poverty through her family history. She breaks down stories from both her mother and father’s sides of the family to show the cyclical nature of transience, abuse and struggling to survive.

I was most impressed by Smarsh’s portrayal of the women in her family. From her grandma Betty and her grandma Teresa to her mother Jeannie, Smarsh provides complex portraits of what it means to be poor and female in a system that works against both women and the impoverished.

In the last third of the novel, Smarsh dives into the progressive attitude that Kansas historically took toward women’s issues. She writes that “a spirit as strong as the female prairie population that shaped Kansas’s early years doesn’t leave a place. It reverberates through culture.”

This line and this historical breakdown that Smarsh provides was one of my favorite parts of the book. It’s hard sometimes to remember that Kansas was a historically progressive state, so I’m glad that Smarsh pulled these historical facts out and connected them to herself and her family.

Smarsh’s exploration of women centers on the fact that she came from a long line of teenage mothers, something she herself was able to avoid. This emphasis of motherhood includes Smarsh’s framing device of “Heartland” being a sort of letter to the unborn child that she is likely to never have.

At first, I was a little weirded out by this narrative device, and I was afraid that it would distract from the rest of the memoir. However, by the time I reached the end of the first chapter the unborn child became part of the background of the story Smarsh was telling.

By the time I finished “Heartland,” I found myself appreciating what Smarsh was trying to accomplish with this narrative device and I think it did add to her story.

Before reading “Heartland” I had never stopped to think about the economic situation of many of the people I’d grown up with. This book opened my eyes to the way that many of my high school classmates could easily have grown up.

Poverty can be easy to ignore, and after reading this book I hope that it becomes something I think about more. “Heartland” is a good starting point because Smarsh writes clearly and openly about poverty and economic policies, which makes it easier to understand the complexity of the issue.

Easily my favorite part of “Heartland” was the way that Smarsh wrote about the prairie and growing up on a family farm. I’m a poet, and I spend a lot of time writing about Kansas. I found Smarsh’s descriptions to be poetic.

They provided something that I could connect to and they made this book relatable even though I can’t relate to the economic situation Smarsh experienced as a child.

Smarsh currently lives in Kansas, and it’s clear that she loves this state and loves where she grew up despite her complicated relationship with it. To be clear, Smarsh doesn’t just provide a golden view of Kansas though, she discusses and describes both the good and bad things about living on the plains. Kansas is a complex state and deserves complex treatment.

It’s refreshing to see Kansas written by one of its native daughters in such an honest manner. Especially when many people write off the state as being the same desolate thing described by L. Frank Baum in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

I’m from a small town in western Kansas, and though I never lived on a farm, I spent many Saturdays out in a pasture working cattle. This book made me take a deeper look at my own connection to Kansas and what it means to be a Kansan.

My parents moved away from my hometown this fall, and when I graduate from K-State in May 2019, I’m likely to be moving away for graduate school, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to come back to Kansas.

I’ve been grappling with this idea for a while now, but Smarsh’s memoir brought it to the forefront of my mind. Kansas and the people who live here deserve to be paid attention to, and even when I do leave, I’m never going to stop calling middle-of-nowhere Kansas home.

“Heartland” is about economics and poverty, sure, but it’s also a book about Kansas and Kansans. It’s a book about a state that sinks its hooks into your heart even when it’s hard to survive here.

Smarsh’s memoir is a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and I hope that when the winners are announced on Nov. 14 that it wins, because this is a book that’s deserving of a wide readership both within Kansas and across the country.

Macy Davis is the assistant culture editor and a senior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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I'm Macy Davis, assistant culture editor. I'm a senior studying English with a minor in mass communications and journalism. When I'm not reading and writing (both for class and for fun), I'm a member of the nationally ranked K-State speech team. After I graduate I plan on pursuing a graduate degree in library science.