Wichita author Sarah Smarsh named finalist for 2018 National Book Award
Growing up among the wheat and milo fields of rural Kingman County — and for a few years in Wichita — Sarah Smarsh knew she’d write a book someday.
“I was a precocious little kid, going around asking my family questions about their deep dark secrets,” she says. “And it was in the context of this rural, Midwestern, Catholic culture where people didn’t talk about themselves or their pasts.”
She persisted. The resulting memoir, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” (Scribner, $26), is scheduled for nationwide release Tuesday and shines a light on an often-ignored part of the American landscape and culture.
Smarsh will be at Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas, at 6 p.m. Tuesday for a reading and signing of the new book. It already has been named to the longlist for this year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction.
A freelance journalist who has reported on socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications, Smarsh, 38, says she chronicled her turbulent childhood in rural Kansas because such stories often go unnoticed and unappreciated.
We sat down with the author recently at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine — a lush oasis that, like Smarsh, somehow managed to flourish and rise out of a bleak Kansas prairie.
Smarsh hails from a long line of teen mothers, a fact she says accounted for much of her station in life. Deciding early on that escaping poverty would mean avoiding pregnancy, Smarsh addresses her memoir to an imaginary daughter she never had.
“America didn’t talk about class when I was growing up. I had no idea why my life looked the way it did, why my parents’ young bodies ached, why some opportunities were closed off to me,” Smarsh writes in the prologue.
“But the hard economies of a family, a town, a region, a country, a world were shaping my relationship to creation — to my womb, yes, but also to what I would or wouldn’t have a chance to make of myself.”
Bookstores these days are awash in stories about hardscrabble childhoods or life among the working poor, including Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” and J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” which media heralded last summer as an explanation of President Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt.
Smarsh, though, says she wanted to illuminate more of the subtleties of class, culture and politics through her experience growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s as the daughter of a fourth-generation Kansas wheat farmer.
She graduated from Kingman High School in 1998 and — thanks to a series of supportive public school teachers, whom she calls “civic soldiers on the frontlines of democracy” — landed a scholarship to the University of Kansas.
There, she studied journalism and creative writing and gained perspective about how her upbringing differed from those of her peers.
“In those moments I saw that mine wasn’t as much a sad story as it was a rare one, that better-off people’s fascination was not just derision but, sometimes, honest awe,” she writes.
“The distance between my world and my country’s understanding of it had been growing because so few people from my place ever ended up on a college campus and beyond to tell its stories. It was a distance I wanted to make smaller.”
She has done that throughout her career, writing essays, columns and political pieces that feature hardworking Americans, including her family members. She also advocates for journalism that goes beyond generalizations or caricatures, and she challenges the concept of the American Dream.
“My criticism of the American Dream is, we’ve called it a promise,” she said. “And what it is is more like a one-in-a-million shot.
“To tell our young people or our working people that somehow there is some just reward for their efforts, is just pretty clearly false,” she said. “If you’re born poor, statistically you’re probably going to stay poor, regardless of how hard you work. And that holds pretty true for every level of the economic ladder.”
Her new memoir “is not overtly a book about politics,” Smarsh said. But it offers a stark and timely look at the lives of poor and working-class people living in flyover country.
“Embedded in my life story and the story of my family and the people I love, you will glean from it the ideas that we carry about the world,” she said. “And I think that a lot of people might be surprised that they don’t fit with the stereotypes of how we supposedly think or vote.”
Kansas readers will nod at many scenes in Smarsh’s book: working at her parents’ fireworks stand near Cheney Lake, hitching an old canoe to a truck and riding through snowy fields, stirring the gravy while storm warnings scroll, riding an elevator at the Sedgwick County Courthouse and spotting former District Attorney Nola Foulston, “dazzling in shoulder pads and big earrings.”
“I feel like this book . . . exists because of this place, and it was created in this place,” she said. “And not to get too mystical, but I feel like that embeds itself into a work of art, and so I hope people will recognize something about it in the pages.”
In her acknowledgments, Smarsh thanks her family “for surviving, with humor and dignity, the difficulties that allowed this book to exist.
“When I asked for their blessing to tell our shared past, they bravely answered yes,” she writes. “Their reasons for standing behind my work, as they sometimes told me: Because it might help someone else, and because it is true.”