by Steven Hill
Sarah Smarsh is out to demolish your stereotypes and assumptions. About Kansas. About the white working class. About so-called red state politics in general and the Trump Train in particular. About life in the vast American middle that she believes is too readily derided as flyover country.
In searing personal essays, pointed newspaper reportage and her first book, published Sept. 18, Smarsh challenges the flawed idea at the heart of our national identity: that America is a classless society, a meritocracy where anyone who works hard will be rewarded with a giant leap on the socio-economic ladder. By drawing on her own life growing up “below the poverty line” in southeastern Kansas, surrounded by family and friends who worked their bodies from first light to late night and still struggled to pay the bills, she has established herself as a champion of those on the losing side of the cultural divide that is economic inequality. Sarah Smarsh is, to put it plainly, calling bullshit on the American Dream.
The Wichita journalist is fond of plain talk. Describing how she arrived at the book’s title, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, she recalls bandying about ideas with her editors at Scribner. Nothing was sticking.
“I just said to hell with it, how about I just say what it is in my family’s language?” Smarsh, c’03, j’03, recalls. “And they were like, ‘That’s the one!’”
The book chronicles the cycle of intergenerational poverty and Smarsh’s determination to avoid its causes and effects—teen pregnancy, school dropouts, alcohol abuse—as she strives to escape her hometown and her family’s fate. At the same time, Heartland pushes back against the dominant portrait of rural America, one painted in the broadest brushstrokes to portray the heartland as monolithically conservative in culture and politics. It examines Smarsh’s awakening—starting at KU—to the larger factors that have a far greater effect than hard work and ambition on a person’s economic fortunes, even as it relays a personal story of hard-won triumph over professional rejection and Smarsh’s devotion to the place that shaped her.
Smarsh and her father, Nick, on the family farm near Kingman circa 1982
The pre-publication buzz has been substantial: Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews gave Heartland starred reviews, and Scribner is getting behind the book with a national advertising campaign and 11-city author tour that includes Wichita (Sept. 18), Lawrence (Sept. 25) and Kansas City (Oct. 3), as well as New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. The Wichita and Lawrence readings were moved to larger rooms (Abode Venue and Liberty Hall) to meet high demand.
In the run-up to publication, Smarsh has been busy. She spent five months as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She wrote several articles for national publications, including an op-ed piece for The New York Times—her first accepted submission in several attempts—that became the top trending story on nytimes.com, generated some 1,600 comments and prompted the paper to invite Smarsh to respond to readers in a second piece, “a dreamy, rare opportunity for a journalist in the comment era,” she tweeted. “Liberal Blind Spots Are Hiding the Truth About ‘Trump Country,’” published July 19, showcases Smarsh’s penchant for equal opportunity call-outs: It takes to task college-educated white liberals, corporations, the Koch brothers’ political network, middle- and upper-class white conservatives who voted for Donald Trump in numbers rivaling his support among working-class whites, and the media—for its skewed portrayal, after decades of indifference, of the white working class.
There’s a fierceness to Smarsh’s journalism, which tends to flout the convention that every story has two sides, each to be presented with equal weight in the name of balance. In commentary and reporting her voice is that of the advocate, but the advocacy doesn’t come from a place of privilege: Pieces such as “Poor Teeth” and “Dangerous idiots: how the liberal media elite failed working-class Americans,” ring with the defiant authenticity of the underdog who doesn’t much care what you think of her (or her family, who often appear in her stories to debunk widely held stereotypes about the denizens of Trump Country) even as she systematically dismantles misconceptions about who she is. Stereotypes, she notes, are one result of a cultural divide caused by economic inequality, and they allow the powerful to make harmful decisions in public policy and politics. She is determined to set the record straight because she’s determined to bridge that divide.
In July, Smarsh reported a story for the English newspaper The Guardian on a Wichita visit by progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who headlined a campaign rally in support of congressional candidate James Thompson. Drawing parallels between Thompson’s hardscrabble Midwestern upbringing and Ocasio-Cortez’s tough Bronx background, Smarsh noted that “a hard story often comes with hard language.”
The fighting spirit the two aspiring legislators share, she argued, is not mere bluster or political posturing, but “a knowing of one’s own strength” and a moral conviction that some things are worth fighting for.
“It is,” she wrote with a superbly turned phrase that could also describe her own back story, “the Statue of Liberty looking a bully in the eye in a barroom and saying to someone standing behind her: ‘Hold my torch.’”
Smarsh grew up in Kingman and Wichita, a fifth-generation farm girl who was both deeply rooted and peripatetic. As she proudly recounts in Heartland, “I rode tractors on the same land where my ancestors rode wagons.” But her family’s constant struggles with money meant that she moved often, living at 21 different addresses before she finished high school, bouncing from school to school and between her parents’ homes and her grandparents’ farm.
She was the first in her family to attend college (the first in her farm household to even finish high school), and she got to KU on her own initiative, landing a scholarship and juggling multiple jobs, mostly in the food-service industry, while enrolled full time. It was on Mount Oread that she first became fully aware of the concept of class.
“When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here,” she writes in her book. “Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.”
Smarsh working at the Kingman grain elevator before coming to KU, summer 1998.
Coming to KU solidified a vague, but long-held feeling that her family was different.
“For me, KU was like the fanciest place that I could ever dream,” Smarsh recalls. “When I arrived on campus, it was probably by and large kids from pretty middle-class backgrounds, but juxtaposed with my experience it appeared to me as wealth. My friends might have jobs for beer money, but their parents were helping pay their tuition. Or they might be taking out a few loans, but they didn’t spend fifth grade without lunch, as I did.”
The culture shock set her apart from her family, too.
“It was the first time in my life that I had this experience of what felt like moving between two different worlds. I’d see Desmond Tutu speak at Allen Field House and then be on the phone with my grandparents when they were done with farm chores. It’s a different language that is used in those two different spaces, but it also felt like two different selves that I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile. It creates this sad kind of distance where it’s like, ‘Now in some ways I’m never gonna be the same as the very people who loved and raised me.’”
Smarsh and her father, Nick, gardening in southern Kansas in 2017
Smarsh had known since she was a kid that she would someday write a book about her family. As a senior in KU’s McNair Scholars Program she took advantage of a summer research institute to begin piecing together, “from the ill-documented chaos that poverty begets,” her tangled family history. She conducted in-depth interviews to nail down stories and timelines. It was the beginning of a book 16 years in the making.
That its publication comes at a time when the media have since the 2016 election been “fixated,” as Smarsh has written, “on this version of the aggrieved laborer: male, Caucasian, conservative, racist, sexist,” is perhaps fitting.
“There’s a Greek word, kairos, that means ‘right timing,’” she notes. She’s smiling, but it’s a rueful smile: She tried for 10 years to get an agent and a book deal, she explains. “So maybe it’s not so much kairos as I kept knocking on the door until it opened.”
“Even at 18 she was very tenacious and committed,” says Mary Klayder, associate director of undergraduate studies and University Honors lecturer in English, who taught Smarsh in her freshman honors seminar on creative writing. “She was committed to the people in her life and understanding them and having other people understand.”
Later, when Smarsh was a senior, Klayder asked Smarsh to be her assistant for the seminar. “I wanted these freshmen to see some of that tenacity and see how she’d made writing really important to her and really personal.”
Her experience in the McNair Scholars Program, which helps underrepresented minority and low-income, first-generation college students prepare for doctoral study, introduced Smarsh to other students from her socio-economic background. It also pushed her to consider graduate school: She went on to earn an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University’s creative writing program. After returning from New York City, she worked as a grant writer for Kansas Legal Services in Topeka and as development director for Van Go, the arts-based social service agency for teens in Lawrence. She took a job teaching college journalism, followed by a tenure-track position as a nonfiction professor at a small university.
It was then, she writes in Heartland, that she realized she’d truly escaped poverty, that “that amorphous goal I’d set as a child—to break the painful cycles I’d been handed by my family before I had any child of my own—had been reached.”
All the while she’d been continuing her work on the book and as a freelance journalist, and she eventually left academia and now works full time as a freelance journalist and speaker focusing on issues of class.
“She takes risks that other people are not willing to take to tell the story and to get at the ideas that she is discovering and wants other people to discover,” Klayder says.
Klayder regularly leads her students on trips abroad, and she remembers Smarsh’s response to one such trip.
“The Western Civ program used to do a trip to Florence and Paris, and she went in the fall of 2001,” she recalls. “It was right after 9/11. People were dropping out, and she said, ‘I’m going.’ She waited until the planes would go, and then she went.
“That’s Sarah. No hesitation.”
Heartland is foremost a family history. It details the difficult path blazed by Smarsh’s mother and grandmother, both teen mothers who worked hard all their lives to secure a modicum of success in a tough job market that cut them no breaks. It’s the story of multigenerational family farmers who stuck it out on the farm and their sons and daughters, who, seeing a decline in prospects due to market forces and public policy decisions in agriculture, trade and banking, chose to try their luck elsewhere. And it’s a memoir of Smarsh’s own life, the one she lived as well as an alternate, what-if scenario that serves as a narrative device: She often tells her story to August, a spiritual presence that embodies the daughter she determined early on that she would not conceive, in order to break the cycle of poverty. Smarsh sees August as both a stand-in for the child within her and “the formless power that I rode out of a hard place.” It’s this ghost life—a continuation of generational poverty that probabilities and statistics suggest were Smarsh’s most likely outcome and that she both escapes and carries always—that haunts the book and lends it a more reflective, elegaic tone than her journalism.
“I’d like to honor you,” Smarsh says to August early in Heartland, “by trying to articulate what no one articulated for me: what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality.” Late in the book, Smarsh concludes that America has failed its children. Determined not to fail hers, she made not bringing another child into poverty her primary goal.
But Heartland is also a book about the American family, and the story it tells is one of deep dysfunction and division. By focusing on her relatives she dramatizes the effect that public policy decisions have on people. The budget cuts that hollow out schools, the profit-driven criminalization of poverty that turns parking tickets and late utility payments into a cascade of debt and escalating legal woes, the rise of for-profit health care and predatory lending, the ascendance of industrial agriculture to the detriment of family farming—all take their toll on the people she loves. In one powerful story, she recounts how her grandmother, forced to move repeatedly to protect her daughter from a violent ex-husband, loses a custody battle for her son because her frequent address changes convince a judge that she’s incapable of providing a stable home.
Smarsh is careful to note that such societal forces often hit nonwhites even harder. But she also insists that for the white working class “both racial privilege and economic disadvantage ... can exist simultaneously.” The struggle of her family and others like it, she argues, “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 wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?”
The answer, of course, is class.
“That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure,” Smarsh writes. “Class didn’t exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”
“I started writing Heartland 16 years ago, signed with publisher over three years ago,” Smarsh tweeted in August. “That’s a lot of believing you’ll one day hold a book that doesn’t exist.”
A KU sociology course, during junior year, “dismantled my political views about fiscal policy,” Smarsh writes. She says now there was nothing remotely political about the course: “It wasn’t because the professor was on some sort of liberal crusade, which Fox News would love to take as the spin on that,” she says. “It was just that she was offering information that I had never had before.”
Study after study that Smarsh encountered in her course research, she writes, “plainly said in hard numbers that, if you are poor, you are likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you work.” Feeling she’d been sold a bill of goods, she bemoaned the fact that her family kin—who distrusted government programs and believed it was possible to bootstrap your way to living the American dream—were missing that information.
But, she notes, the liberal people she met in college were also missing information: “What it feels like to pee in a cup to qualify for public benefits to feed your children. A teenager’s frustration when a dilapidated textbook is missing a page and there’s no computer in the house for finding the lesson online. The impossibility of paying a citation for expired auto insurance, itself impossible to pay despite fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.”
Heartland’s great triumph is that it provides that missing information to both audiences: the disadvantaged who rarely see their story told, and the rest who rarely hear it.
“She listens,” says Mary Klayder. “In class she really made her points, but she also listened to other people, and I think that’s a big part of her journalism. One of her frustrations in her work I’ve read is that people just generalize and they don’t listen to what is really the issue.”
Indeed, one of Smarsh’s chief beefs with the national press is that coastal reporting on middle America too often sets out to confirm preconceived notions—that all working class voters in red states are conservative Republicans, for example, who deserve outsized credit (or blame, depending on your political stance) for Donald Trump’s election. Focusing on only one group renders vast swaths of any spectrum—be it the electorate or certain levels of the socio-economic strata—invisible. And that makes rapprochement nigh impossible.
"If something I’ve written can validate the group that feels unseen and open eyes in the group that has the privilege of often being seen,” Smarsh says, “that’s the sweet spot I’m going for.”
Smarsh recording the audio book for Simon and Schuster Audio in July
In a letter included in the advance reader’s copy sent to critics, booksellers and other opinionmakers, Smarsh says her book “is not an argument” but “an invitation to heal.”
There is personal healing, for sure, in confronting harrowing memories of growing up poor, and the physical and psychic dangers poverty exposed her to. (As reviewers have noted, Smarsh admits that some of the challenges the family faced were self-created, but many more resulted from systemic problems sparked by government policy and driven by stereotypes—either misunderstandings or cynical distortions for political gain—far beyond any family’s control.)
Beyond that, however, the healing Smarsh has in mind involves the extreme polarization and divisiveness that marks the post-2016 election period.
“That was definitely in my mind, writing that in early 2018,” Smarsh says. “But in a bigger way, that election and the fissures that have been revealed, it’s all just a manifestation of unresolved aspects of class structure in this country that have been there all along.
“I guess in the bigger scheme of things I’m talking about validating people who have felt like their story wasn’t told—I hope not to be so presumptuous as to speak for anyone else, but if someone feels seen, then that’s a healing. If someone feels like they had a stereotype or false narrative dissolved or obliterated, that’s a healing.”
Near the end of Heartland, Smarsh tells August, “My life’s work was to be heard, and the poor young mother will have a hard row at that.”
A willingness to listen. A longing to be heard.
Hard stories often come with these things too.
Listen to Smarsh discuss how education, including her time at KU, helped her drive to escape poverty during a reading at Lawrence's Liberty Hall.
As featured in
Issue No. 5, 2018