*Finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize* *Instant New York Times Bestseller* *Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Post, Buzzfeed (Nonfiction), Shelf Awareness (Nonfiction), Bustle, and Publishers Weekly (Nonfiction)*
An essential read for our times: an eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in America that will deepen our understanding of the ways in which class shapes our country.
Sarah Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side, and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working class Americans living in the heartland.
During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed the freedom of a country childhood, but observed the painful challenges of the poverty around her; untreated medical conditions for lack of insurance or consistent care, unsafe job conditions, abusive relationships, and limited resources and information that would provide for the upward mobility that is the American Dream. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves with clarity and precision but without judgement, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country.
A beautifully written memoir that combines personal narrative with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland examines the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.
“A deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works—including Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville—that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline...Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra” (The New York Times Book Review).
This reading group guide for Heartland includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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 myths about people thought to be less because they earn less. Her personal history affirms the corrosive impact intergenerational poverty can have on individuals, families, and communities, and she explores this idea as lived experience, metaphor, and level of consciousness.
Smarsh was born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up as the daughter of a dissatisfied young mother and raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the heartland. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland is an uncompromising look at class, identity, and the particular perils of having less in a country known for its excess.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of the memoir, Smarsh writes that, as a child, “I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world.” What did this other voice tell her? What did the people in her house and on the news say about her?
2. Smarsh is the product of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s side. She writes that she was like a penny in a purse, “not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production.” How did this legacy of teenage pregnancy affect her family’s social and economic mobility?
3. Smarsh and her brother were each born just weeks before Reagan won an election, and his economic policies had a tremendous impact on her childhood. Can you describe what that impact looked like?
4. Smarsh describes an incident in which she, as a toddler, pulled a chest of drawers onto herself, forcing her barely postpartum mother to injure herself lifting it up. Smarsh’s father was at work. How does this accident demonstrate the dangers of rural poverty and the fault lines in Jeannie and Nick’s relationship? Are the two related?
5. There were many, many car wrecks in the author’s life and in the lives of members of her family. Why do you think that is?
6. Teresa, Smarsh’s paternal grandmother, had untreated “woman problems” in her youth, according to Nick. What kinds of problems might he have been referring to? How was life in rural Kansas different for women than it was for their farmer husbands?
7. Smarsh writes, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kinds of people.” Do you think that’s true? How does Smarsh straddle that line?
8. Betty often said that homeless people should “get a job,” even though she and her family struggled economically—and even though she often gave money to those same people. How do you think her values were affected by the class system?
9. Do you believe, as Smarsh writes, that “in America . . . the house is the ultimate status symbol, and ownership is a source of economic pride”? What do you think the family’s transience meant to Nick, Jeannie, Smarsh, and her brother?
10. How did Bob’s newspaper job and middle-class stability affect the family’s economic situation?
11. Many of the women in Smarsh’s family endured physical violence at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. In what ways does gendered violence inhibit economic stability?
12. Smarsh writes that the women in her family had an “old wisdom” that had more to do with intuition than knowledge or education. Where do you see this in action in the lives of female characters?
13. Consider the specific reality of Smarsh’s life as a high-achieving high school student. What pushed her to excel?
14. What social realities did Smarsh meet in college? How was her life different from those of her fellow students, and how was it similar?
15. Smarsh argues that “this country has failed its children.” Do you agree? How does her story demonstrate that, or fail to?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider your own economic background. How did economic opportunities, or the lack of them, shape your experience as a child? Discuss these experiences with the group.
2. Listen to a short interview with Sarah Smarsh about national identity on WNYC: https://wnycstudios.org/story/out-of-many-there-one-american-identity.
Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Texas Observer, Pacific Standard, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and many other publications. A recent Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a former professor of nonfiction writing, Smarsh is a frequent speaker on economic inequality and related media narratives. She lives in Kansas. Heartland is her first book.