The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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.

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Trash on Easter

“Tie-dyed variety this year–cute, right?

This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.

Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”

This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.

I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”

Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a real person—that insult, “trash.”

In my tandem-reading way (find my last tandem read here) I consulted Sarah Smarsh’s well-researched HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR OF WORKING HARD AND BEING BROKE IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (a finalist for the National Book Award) in which the journalist author examines class in America through her own personal lens, having grown up in a working poor family in Kansas.

We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”

Sarah Smarsh in Heartland

And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?

And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours from me and mine…

~Rebecca