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Townwide read: ‘Heartland’ ... Read now, discuss later

The third townwide read sponsored by Arm in Arm, with the Harvard Family Association as cosponsor, was to have taken place Thursday, March 26, in Volunteers Hall with a discussion of Sarah Smarsh’s “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” That meeting has been postponed, but perhaps more people will read the book and attend the gathering on a future date.

The mission of Arm in Arm, founded in 2016, is “to promote and uphold a safe, inclusive social climate that values diversity and fosters respect for one another.” Reading and discussing books about different cultures furthers that mission by bringing people together to experience new awareness and understanding.

The first book in the townwide series, “The Faraway Brothers,” was about the terrible conditions of their homeland that led two brothers to immigrate to this country illegally and of the difficulties they encountered here. “The Hate You Give” focused on the black community and the racial injustices it faces. In “Heartland,” Smarsh tells her story of growing up “below the poverty line and in a cultural wasteland” in rural Kansas. All three books show the terrible conditions under which people in this country struggle and the indomitable human spirit that strives for a better existence. Running through all three books is the idea that to make it out requires personal integrity, at least one person who believes in you, and a bit of luck.

Smarsh’s childhood was dominated by wild women financially dependent on men who physically abused them. Her great-grandmother Dorothy, grandmother Betty, and mother Jeannie were all teenage mothers and involved in more than one violent relationship. Betty was first married to a gangster who once shot her in the arm, and she went on to have six other marriages or relationships. The women were constantly uprooting their children and moving around the center of the country in beat-up cars, attempting to escape poverty or abuse. In what were enabling relationships, among them they were addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, and wild behavior. Jeannie, with her frustrated ambitions and unhappiness, was unable to show Sarah any love, and was instead cold and often cruel to her.

A gentle father

Dorothy’s husband Aaron was physically abusive, and she moved around to escape him. Betty went through a series of violent husbands and separations from her children until she settled down with Arnie, who owned the farm where Sarah was raised. He was hardworking and a heavy drinker and while he was kind to Sarah, he also accused her of thinking she was better than the rest of them. Her own father was also a drinker but a gentle man and “the most maternal force in my life.” She says having a gentle father who loved her deeply helped her to escape other family cycles her mother couldn’t.

“Poor whiteness is a peculiar offense and it makes you feel you are a failure,” writes Smarsh. As a kid on the farm, “Hard work was my answer to whether I deserved to exist.” She loves the smell of the earth and the air and the huge sky, and beneath the hurtful behavior of her relatives, there is a sense of family. But every moment of her life “required vigilance,” and she vows early on that she will get out of there, out of the “negative cycles of poverty handed down for centuries,” and do better. She realizes that to do that she has to break the cycle of teenage pregnancy into which she was born—“A poor teenage girl in rural Kansas might experience pregnancy as an inevitable life sentence.” To keep herself focused, Sarah imagines a daughter being born into the same life that she was, and she resolves to spare her from every aspect of it.

Shaming the poor

Smarsh tells her story against the background of government policies and societal attitudes toward the poor. “Being born female and poor were the marks against my claim on respect, in the world’s eyes” is something she feels early on in her life. “Shaming the poor is a unique form of bigotry—it’s not about who or what you are, it’s about what your actions have failed to accomplish.” She talks about how different presidents have affected the circumstances of the poor: “Conceived a few months after Carter’s foreboding speech [in which he said the true problem was materialism; we could remain selfish or embrace unity], and born a few months before Reagan’s inauguration meant that my life and the economic demise of American workers would unfold in tandem.” She poses the question: “Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason isn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?”

Smarsh writes with honesty and without self-pity. The dialogue and descriptions bring both the people and the setting to life. One drawback to the book is its organization, which can be confusing as the author goes back and forth in time.

In addition to being a fascinating story of Smarsh’s life, the book lends itself to discussion of her insights on the cycles of poverty and to questions about America’s responsibility to its poor. What shapes public attitudes toward the poor? What past government policies have affected the poor positively or negatively? Is the American Dream a myth? What responsibility do poor people themselves bear for their situation? What could improve the quality of life for rural workers in America’s heartland and elsewhere in the country?

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