Sarah Smarsh

Scribe Publications
15 October 2018


Sarah Smarsh

An eye-opening, topical, and moving memoir of one woman’s experience of working-class poverty in America.

Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teenage mothers on her maternal side, Smarsh grew up in a family of labourers trapped in a cycle of poverty. She learned about hard work, and also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality, eventually coming to understand the powerful forces that have blighted the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the heartland.

By sharing the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to consider modern-day America from a different perspective. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland is a searing, uncompromising look at class, identity, and the perils of having less in a country known for its excess.


The product of multiple generations of teenage mothers, Sarah Smarsh was just a child and living below the poverty line in rural Kansas when she first heard a voice from within. This voice grew into a disembodied internal power that was to help her to live a different life from the rest of the women in her family. When she became a teenager herself, she recognised the voice as that of her unborn child. Without reliable adult guidance and a stable home, she had cause to wonder what advice she would give to a daughter of her own. Smarsh credits this internal relationship she developed as her way out of poverty and this book is her attempt to honour this voice by articulating what she wished someone had told her, ‘what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality’.

Throughout the book Smarsh directly addresses her unborn child and while this unique framing device might have seemed contrived were it handled by a lesser writer, Smarsh’s prose is extraordinarily beautiful, evocative and unsentimental, and framing the book in this way reveals unique insights into gender, the body and poverty. Like Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, which examines the connections between housing instability, profit and poverty, Smarsh also sees the transience her family experienced as a product of their class and an unequal economic system. Her mother moved around so much that she attended five schools in five towns in one year. Smarsh herself had attended eight different schools by ninth grade. Unlike J.D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, another memoir about white working-class upbringing, Smarsh does not just see the American Dream as being in crisis, but also as founded on false premises. In this way, Heartland is able to offer a more nuanced analysis of gender, race, and class within the power structures of American politics and culture.

Kara Nicholson is part of the online Readings team.

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