Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
I can’t be objective about this book. It’s a memoir by someone born unwanted to an unwed teenage mother, who grew up in & around Wichita. I was born to an unwed teenage mother, and I spent a year or so in my late teens with the weirdest determination to move with my boyfriend from Staten Island to Wichita. Hence this book was like a weird mash-up of the kind of life I could have had, poor and disadvantaged, had I not been relinquished; and the life I briefly but badly wanted to have, canning vegetables in a farmhouse in Kansas.
So, that said, let’s try to be objective. It may seem at first blush that we have yet another GLASS CASTLE on our hands – look at my crazy childhood! Marvel at my wherewithal as I escape it! But this is one “growing up poor” memoir that is definitely different. Smarsh addresses the whole thing to “you” – “you” is the baby she never had; the unwanted, unwed pregnancy that would have sealed her fate, like that of her mother and grandmother before her, had she not made it her teenage life’s goal to graduate with a diploma in hand and no baby inside of her.
Furthermore, Smarsh doesn’t play her childhood for shock value. All of the main characters in her life are viewed with compassion. In fact, the book is more like HILLBILLY ELEGY than GLASS CASTLE; but HILLBILLY wasn’t political at all compared to this. Smarsh puts no blame whatsoever on any of her relatives for their actions; she blames everything on poverty, and poverty she blames on our flawed American system.
She has no policy prescriptions, and it’s not clear what she would advocate to fix things. Her relatives eschew handouts and help, and wouldn’t accept increased (or any) welfare payments if they were offered, so increasing traditional poverty relief programs won’t help. What Smarsh seems to want is an admission – from somewhere, somehow – that the American Dream is a hoax. Working hard DOESN’T help. And then, I guess, we take it from there?
I can see whence she gets this – by all accounts, her folks DID work hard, and DO work hard. I lost track of the number of truck stops opened by the females and jobs held down by her Dad. And I’m not seeing incapacitating addiction, other than by Dad’s new wife, or too many other horrendous life decisions; apart from too much husband-hopping and, of course, the unwanted pregnancies, these being where Smarsh lays the blame from Day 1, being one of them herself. Her family is Catholic, so I guess that’s why contraception is not mentioned even one time throughout the entire book that I can remember. (Smarsh stays unfertilized by choosing a boyfriend with no “physical desire” for her – she drops this strange fact at the end of the book, never having mentioned a boyfriend before, which was bizarre.) It is odd to me how Catholics can apparently take the no-contraception rule so incredibly seriously, but not pay any respect to certain other rules, such as, oh, say, the one about marriage vows.
As a writer, Smarsh occasionally gets repetitive, as well as coming off as whiny. A big plot point is her mother’s ambivalence toward her. She gives us very few actual examples, none of which is earth-shattering; though maybe I’m just inured to such things by the whole GLASS CASTLE genre. The narrative also does not seem directly chronological, and gets confusing. Apart from the names of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, names of other relatives could get hard to keep straight, especially due to the overlapping ages of the generations due to the unplanned timing of pregnancies; but Smarsh does drop reminders reasonably often (“my young aunt”, etc.).
I wanted to return to this story again and again… maybe, in the end, mostly due to my personal reasons. I’m so happy I discovered it.