It has been a year since the publication of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” (Scribner) by Sarah Smarsh, a Kansas native who detailed a childhood spent in poverty as the daughter of a teen mother. Smarsh eventually climbed out of that situation to become a journalist and college professor.
The book made the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. It has also made her a powerful spokesperson for Kansas, where she lives, and for rural America in general.
“Someone who previously had no true understanding of the world I’ve described will say, ‘You opened my eyes,’ ” says Smarsh. “Or someone who has experienced aspects of my story firsthand — economic struggle, a rural upbringing, being born to a teen mother or something else — will say, ‘I saw myself in a book for the first time,’ or ‘This is the first time I’ve ever gone to a book signing,’ or ‘My 70-year-old farmer dad has never finished a book before and he finished this one.’ And a lot of readers just want me to hear a bit of their own story, to close the communication loop. Receiving all these responses is the honor of my life.”
Part of what has resonated so strongly with readers is the book’s tone: honest yet loving.
“Heartland is not a polemic or an overtly political book, and I take both major parties to task in my analysis of class inequality while documenting my own support for both sides over the years. But a reader can surmise which way I lean today,” says Smarsh.
“What I’ve learned is that, even as we’re increasingly tribal with our ideological affiliations, there are ties that bind even beyond ‘red vs. blue.’ Those ties are love of family, love of community, a sense of place, a pride in where you come from. A lot of people who disagree with me on the issues feel proud to say about someone who beat the odds just by writing and publishing a book, ‘She’s from where I’m from. She lived what I lived.’ ”