REVIEW: What is Poverty Really Like? Sarah Smarsh Knows

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Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

By Sarah Smarsh  

Scribner 304 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

The American Dream is a delusion. A myth peddled to struggling, working class Americans to keep their noses to the grindstone and their minds off what keeps them poor; a fabrication that here in this democracy, a rugged work ethic leads to eventual prosperity. For legions of working class Americans, the accident of birth consigns them to a lifetime of poverty.

Sarah Smarsh’s new book, Heartland, provides a searing description of the utter chaos that being poor entails. It reads at times like a simple memoir of a Kansas farming family struggling to keep up, at others as a social critique of America’s economic structure. Part family history, part picaresque novel, it helps us to understand the maelstrom of rudderless want.

Smarsh traces the tangled cobweb of relations, divorces, jobs, towns, and schools that ensnares her own childhood as her family toils to make ends meet. Poverty, as she deftly describes it, comprises not just the scarcity of money, but a collision of consequences that throws poor people into a permanent state of turmoil.

With never enough money to keep up, Smarsh’s family members scamper to stay one step ahead of financial ruin, trying to weather the cost of living in America. A boss’s sexual harassment, a car’s outworn breaks, or a stalking ex-husband may throw the entire precarious financial situation into crisis. Ensuing expenses, confrontations, and evictions propel the family back out on the road to the next apartment rental or another trailer park, hoping to find an end to wandering and a final place to thrive.

Without steady employment, property ownership, or reputation to ground them to one place for any prolonged stretch of time, her characters quickly become transient. Families break apart as financial stresses lead to divorce and parents send children to live with relatives to ease the costs of supporting them. That impermanence and isolation, which contribute to poor performance in school and a frayed social network, leave many of the young girls pregnant, or worse.

Meanwhile the adults turn to various addictions to cope with the debilitating stress of clamorous bills and expenses. Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, drugs, and abusive relationships trigger physical and mental health problems, along with bodily peril for the women dealing with angry men. Weak cash flow relegates poor families to sub-standard housing, underperforming school districts, and poor nutrition. And the constant strife results in shame, exhaustion, despair, depression, and violence. For most, there will be no escape from this cycle of poverty.

Smarsh frames the book as a memoir written for an imaginary daughter, August, on “what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality.” That promise, Smarsh shows us, has far less chance of being delivered to the tired, poor, huddled American underclass. August serves as Smarsh’s alter ego, a check on any poor decision or mistake that might seal her to the same fate as the other women in her family.

While Smarsh does not idealize rural life, neither does she berate or ridicule it. Her account comes from an appreciation of its simplicity and generosity while also knowing instinctively that to remain in it would sentence her to a lifetime of stifling routine, escapist addiction, and emotionally closeted motherhood.

Beyond the convoluted family history, Smarsh documents the struggles of a vast white rural community residing between the nation’s coasts and beyond her cities, a demographic that cosmetically may belong to the racial majority, but suffers many of the same disadvantages of poor black and brown Americans. She touches on the paradox of being white and poor, that despite their 18-hour days of scrabbling to make a living, the privilege of race brings them no discernible benefits.

She grasps America’s asphyxiating materialism and the humiliating impossibility of participating in a consumer society that one labors to maintain, but cannot afford to enjoy. She describes a pattern of targeted marginalization, humiliation, and criminalization of the poor that leaves them destitute, unable ever to keep ahead of the costs of living in a “free society” and publically shamed for that handicap.

Early on in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes a tiny ant being crushed in the folds of a giant tortoise. The image illustrates the powerlessness and peril of a small being caught in the machinery of a system beyond its comprehension.

The real-life characters of Sarah Smarsh’s near-novel fix our plumbing, wait on our tables, grow our food, and defend our shores. They are the “Okies” of today: tough, resilient, simple folk who do not fathom “the system” as anything other than a mechanism that will chew them up and spit them out. And so long as we dismiss them as morally bereft hicks somehow deserving of their fate, we will continue to fuel a rage that sees destruction as its only alternative.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.