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.