BookScapes: Review of HEARTLAND, by Sarah Smarsh

Our Story Circle reading circle met yesterday to talk about Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh–a lively discussion that spilled over into a second hour, with lots to say, lots to share.

For me, reading Heartland was a heart-breaking, evocative experience that brought back my childhood and young adult years, spent on a farm and in a small rural community on the plains of Indiana and Illinois in the 1940s and 50s. Smarsh’s memoir, subtitled “Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” brought back my own personal memories of old, cold farmhouses on a windy prairie, weekly Fidelity Loan payments, my father’s alcoholism, and hard, hard times. Its themes of teen pregnancy, class division, denial of opportunity, hurtful inequalities, and frequent moves from house to house and school to inadequate school were all deeply familiar. The book was almost a case study of my own childhood.

But while all this remembered pain might have been depressing, it wasn’t. The stories of Smarsh’s girlhood deprivations are braided with loving memories of the family that braved these difficulties together. Her compassionate retelling of her family’s fortitude–and especially of the bravery of the resilient women–reminded me that perseverance, dogged work, hope, and yes, love, do finally bring us out on the other side. Smarsh says that she spent the better part of fifteen years writing this book, and the result is a clear-eyed, deeply considered, compassionate, but unsentimental understanding that requires us to look beyond the stereotypes to the essential truth of what it means to grow up rural, poor, and female–and how that growing up affects everything we do or become as adults.

Whether you come from a rich or a poor family, urban or rural, red or blue, you need to read this book. And think about it. I hope it won’t let you go.


7 comments on “BookScapes: Review of HEARTLAND, by Sarah Smarsh

  1. Debbie, thank you so very, very much. It’s quite mutual, you know. You’re the reason I write, each one of you. You make these books happen.

  2. I hope you know just how much you mean to all of us, your faithful readers. We know, and appreciate, all of your hard work and long hours of research that, in turn, produce such wonderful, educational and entertaining books! Even my gardens thank you! I live in Austin and your descriptions of our beautiful Hill Country remind me of how lucky I am to get to live here! Thank you!

  3. I love your posts. I am anxious to read Heartland. I was raised on a dry land farm in West Texas I am now 84 years old. Some hard times back in the thirties and forties.

  4. Carolyn, I was in my mid-40s when I began to understand my father’s alcoholism and how it had affected my family as a little tribe and our individual lives. What surprised me about this book was how ubiquitous alcohol was among Smarsh’s family, friends, acquaintances. Makes me wonder just how much alcoholism is hidden in farming families, where stress levels must be sky-high.

  5. I grew up on a farm in Iowa in the 40s and 50s. My dad was an alcoholic, too, altho it took me a long time to understand what was wrong. This sounds like one book I’d like. Will let you know when I’ve read it.

  6. I’m going to recommend this book to my Mother, and I’m adding it to my own TBR pile. Thank you, Susan. It sounds like an amazing book.

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