Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is the anti-Hillbilly Elegy. Smarsh's book is smarter than J.D. Vance's, it's more compassionate, and its understanding of class and race dynamics is generations beyond Vance's.
That word "class" is perhaps the most important one to understand Heartland's appeal. At the beginning of the book, just at the dawn of the Reagan era, class is an invisible force that touches everything in America: like gravity, class is everywhere and it affects everyone, even though nobody spent much time thinking about it.
For Smarsh's family, class is what held them down. Smarsh comes from poor Kansas stock — the kind of proud folks who were always just running shy of of financial catastrophe. In Heartland, Smarsh explains the various crises that afflict the lives of poor Americans: abuse, drug addiction, dangerous jobs, lack of health care coverage, and exploitative practices. She dispels the bootstrap idea that any American can break free the chains of poverty with the simple application of a little elbow grease. She makes it all real and raw on the page.
Just about everyone in the Reading Through It Book Club last night enjoyed and appreciated Heartland, with many of us considering it to be one of the best books we've covered in our three years. We appreciated the elegance of Smarsh's arguments — she provides one of the most cogent explanations of how white privilege transcends even the harshest class distinctions, for instance — and we were moved by the compassion of her story.
It's true that Heartland doesn't offer any prescriptive policy solutions for the problems depicted in the book, but in the end it didn't leave us feeling hopeless. Instead, it helped us to understand the situation we're facing with a little more clarity.
For most of Smarsh's life, class was America's silent obsession. Nobody talked about it, but we were all painfully aware of class distinctions at every minute of every day. And we mostly held on to the idea that class could be overcome with a little bit of bootstrap-pulling. That lie is starting to fall away. More and more, where you're born in America and who you're born to defines you for your entire life.
It's possible now for Americans to have a wide-ranging and honest conversation about class without embarrassing anyone. That's bad news for the wealthy who have profited off of Smarsh's family's impoverishment; it means that people are starting to realize exactly how they've been screwed. When that awareness shifts from a hunch to indisputable reality, those lines of class are going to look more like battle lines.