Heartland is a book about poverty. The author Sarah Smarsh grew up in Indiana in a family that had experienced generations of poverty. Poverty defined her family and limited their expectations. Her book is an indictment of one of the richest countries in the world and the embedded poverty which disfigures it.
The book tells the story of the author’s grandmother and her life. Betty is a hard working woman who never seems to get a break. She makes poor choices in men because she is dependent on men to maintain her when she has children. She has a child very early in life. She attracts men who abuse her but she also had an abusive childhood. Her education is scrappy and, although she works several jobs at once, she finds it difficult to make a living. The author shows how Betty’s background was poverty and how poverty prevents her rising above her background. The pattern is repeated with Betty’s daughter and only broken when Sarah, her granddaughter, puts all of her energy into escaping from her poverty but still finds that her background limits her expectations and what she does in life.
The author is honest in describing what happens in the lives of her family. She talks about debt, criminality, teenage pregnancy, mental health, work related disability and addiction. She shows how a poor lifestyle can so often mean moving around and changing relationships frequently. She also shows how hardworking her family can be for little reward and how the financial crash of 2008 affected them.
This book is fascinating in that it describes a way of life that I didn’t know much about. This description of poverty is from the inside and it echoes everything I have observed about how poverty is embedded in the institutions, culture and society of the UK as well.
This is also a book that celebrates survivors. The author is full of admiration for how family members have faced up to and overcome hurdles in their life. They may not always have been able to give her the love or support that she needs but she understands why and loves them anyway. The people in this book, especially the women, endure.
The narrative in this book is told by the author as a story of her family to the daughter that she has never had. Part of the purpose of the book seems to be to explain to that imaginary daughter why she has never felt secure enough to bring her to life and what she might have faced had she been born. This is an unusual approach and I wasn’t sure of it at the beginning but as the book progressed I could see what the author was doing and I understood why she felt that she had to tell the story that way.
I have read quite a few books about American poverty that I would recommend including The Last Days of Detroit which you can read about here , Educated which I mention in this list of books from last year and Janesville which I listened to on audio last year and is included in this list. Heartland tells a personal and gripping personal story which is as important and as illuminating as any of these.