“We cannot understand … any great injustice by thinking about the masses,” Ana Maria Archila told the New York Times. “We have to think about it in the experience of one person.”
That’s how Archila, one of the protesters who famously confronted Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake during the height of the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment, frames the power of her confrontation. She wanted Flake to listen to her story. She argues that individual stories can, sometimes, change minds.
For that same reason, in a moment when media shorthand like “Trump country” seems to caricature an entire class of people living between the coasts, a compelling narrative from that too-often-stereotyped region feels refreshing and urgent.
In her new memoir, Heartland, Sarah Smarsh fully embodies Archila’s idea: The book tells the story of the injustices done to millions by taking the reader inside one person’s life, her own. Smarsh denies being an “activist” writer and says her new book is neither a polemic nor a manifesto; it is first and foremost a memoir. Still, Heartland’s vulnerability necessarily reflects back on public discourse, at least in the way Archila articulates: Smarsh comprehensively and vividly portrays intergenerational, rural poverty through the eyes of one particular person.
Smarsh structures the book chronologically, tracing her life growing up on the prairie from birth to high school, and intersperses those stories by detailing the lives of her family through several generations. As the book navigates Smarsh’s childhood, each chapter focuses on a related thematic concern, like money (“A penny in a purse”), physical work (“The body of a poor girl”), home ownership (“A house that needs shingles”), and gender trouble (“A working class woman”).
In addition to thematic division, Smarsh uses another structural technique in dedicating the book to “the poor child I would never have.” This child, whom she calls August, is named for the month, as well as for Smarsh’s grandfather and for the adjective.
Stylistically, when Smarsh turns to and from the second person address—suddenly including a “you” in her book—it produces, sometimes, an awkward whiplash, and sometimes a defiant lyricism.
More practically, the imagined child serves as a bulwark against chaos and an objective lens for retrospective analysis. The technique allows Smarsh to pause and reflect in the midst of incomprehensible forces: “You [August] were above the markets that defined the lives of farmers and farm animals, beyond the shame a country or church could assign.”
The swirl of agribusiness markets and shaming rhetoric that hems in young Sarah are as unique to her environment as the tornados that sweep through rural Kansas. Smarsh’s specific setting delimits much of her early life, and she announces her farmstead as home in the first, tactile sentence of this first substantive chapter: “The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita on the silty loam of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass.”
On a recent trip to Boston, Smarsh framed her book talk, almost inevitably, around this geographic determinism. It was a rainy Monday night at Harvard Book Store, where a dozen packed rows of people sat surrounded by a university with an endowment $10 billion larger than the annual GDP of Smarsh’s metropolitan Wichita. Smarsh warned the crowd about ignoring the importance of one’s earthly coordinates: “In this digital moment,” she said, “some of us fancy ourselves post-geography.”
But the planet’s larger than it may appear on our screens. She continued: “Where we are physically on the Earth absolutely shapes our experience. … That has everything to do with class.”
For Smarsh, geography and economics are intertwined. These two characteristics—physical distance and material wealth—also separate America’s newsrooms and publishing houses from the life experiences of people like Smarsh. This difference, Smarsh argues, results in the media’s rhetorical shortcuts that can empty places like Kansas of its nuance. Terms like “Trump country,” “red states,” “flyover country,” “the rural-urban divide,” “the working class,” and even “poor” denote a stereotype, Smarsh points out, that flattens the experience, for example, of the millions of Midwesterners who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Consider, as Smarsh asks us, how the term “white trash” is, in fact, a “slur.” Consider how even the simple word poor, a term “used to represent those without money,” is also “a descriptor meaning outright badness, as in ‘poor health’ or ‘poor test results.’ In a country where personal value is supposed to create wealth, it is easy for a poor person to feel himself a bad one.”
Or consider, as Smarsh addresses her would-be child, how this language of difference can clash with a reality: “You would have been born on one side of that perceived divide, but that wouldn’t have predicted anything about the core of you. Not your politics and definitely not your character. … Every day you would decide whether to stay, go, or try to go. And, if you went, no matter where you ended up … you’d still feel the invisible dirt of your motherland on the soles of your feet.”
In order to really understand this book, I think you have to read it yourself. And that’s because Heartland succeeds most completely in the unexpected details and emotional quirks that each reader will stumble over themselves—the Flintstone vitamins signifying wealth, the misspelling of “missiles” signifying lack of opportunity. The book shines from thousands of these buried gems, ready and waiting to be noticed. Smarsh invites her readers to see the whole more clearly by its parts.
About halfway through the book, Smarsh presents one of these idiosyncratic anecdotes chock-full of revelatory minutia. Entering adolescence and just beginning to find her voice, young Smarsh competes in her elementary school’s “annual public speaking contest.” The theme is “illegal drugs,” and there are red ribbons brought in from DARE. Smarsh, practiced, poised, and self-adorned with dangly earrings, delivers a speech called “The Devil Within,” in which she “laid the responsibility for avoiding drug addiction squarely where I’d been taught it belonged: yourself.” Smarsh wins. She’s rewarded with a certificate, a scientific calculator, and a handshake with the district attorney.
But something feels wrong. To the praise of her family sitting on fold-out chairs, young Smarsh says addicts are morally deficient. But couldn’t fifth-grade Smarsh have easily been talking about her own family? What about “Dad’s booze and gambling, Mom and Grandma’s incessant smoking, and Chris’s [Dad’s second wife’s] pills”? What about Smarsh’s own “stealing and vandalizing”? Are her family members, and her own self, irresponsible, weak willed, and morally failed?
“While Heartland is not a political book and it doesn’t set out to make an overtly political argument,” Smarsh told the crowd in Cambridge, “it absolutely regards the connection between public forces and our private experiences.”
Too often, like the fifth-grade Smarsh, we neglect to appreciate the impact of public forces, namely a lack of money and opportunity, on private decisions.
If family members like Chris, with her opioid addiction, had “failed,” Smarsh wonders, “what about the systems that had failed her?”