One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.
I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.
Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…
I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.
As it happened, I heard Ehrenreich, who is a pretty big deal and author of NICKEL AND DIMED, (a book for which she went undercover among the American poor), speak at Johns Hopkins University–to a group of us communications folks. I remember thinking the statistics and stories she shared that day seemed to me like from another world–foreign–and yet her research centered on the poor of Baltimore, not far from where I live now.
In contrast, there was no going undercover for Smarsh, born into a family for whom there were no bootstraps big enough to change their class: working poor. From the book flap summary:
I can’t say I loved this book, because it’s not a book to be loved. It’s not easy to read about statistics writ personal on the author’s immediate and extended family–generation after generation–in the way of teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, and domestic violence.
Smarsh is born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer, and yet, instead of each generation doing better, it seems the opposite was true. Such is the power of the stranglehold of poverty–as destructive as the tornadoes that so often whip through the author’s home state.
I come to memoirs looking for at least two of three elements: a story worth telling, with logic to support, and emotional resonance to make me feel. That HEARTLAND is Smarsh’s story, which she supports through sound journalistic research, and narrates in such a lyrical way, made this a very satisfying read.
The swirling clouds were just above my head, reaching down with little arms…They spun around a middle void, stretched and grabbed at one another, pulling back into themselves–the beginnings of a funnel.
A supercell, as meteorologists call it, swirling over the plains is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.Sarah Smarsh
Note: I didn’t say the memoir was an easy read. Passages that begin “Being broke has a way of separating families…” made me recall the ups and downs of my mom’s upbringing, born just 15 years after the worst year of the Great Depression. The last of four kids, she was sent away for a time to live with relatives, something not all that unusual then. And then there was the emotional poverty in families touched by the Depression and the use of alcohol as a balm. In this way, Smarsh’s story feels like a story out of time, like something from high school history stories of the Dust Bowl. But no. The story of American poverty and its tendrils is, unfortunately, evergreen.
How to break the cycle? How to scale that steep slope representing the hierarchy of needs? For Smarsh, like so many others, the answer lay in “getting out,” getting an education. Of course, it’s not as easy–or easy on the heart–as all that. Because getting out means leaving behind.
…as college experiences took me outside my home state, I realized that Kansas as a whole suffered from a similar disconnect with power. The broader country viewed states like mine as unimportant, liminal places. They yawned while driving through them, slept as they flew over them.Sarah Smarsh
Smarsh’s HEARTLAND and so many stories coming out of the American Midwest right now are sounding the alarm. Let’s hope we wake up.
Now it’s your turn? Have you read Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND or another book on the American Midwest, on class? What are you reading right now?
For ideas, here’s a must-read list of 100 books featuring the Midwest at Book Riot.
Comment below–I always love to get ideas for new reads!