My Grandfather’s Hands: A Review of Heartland

May 23, 2019
Title: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Author: Sarah Smarsh
Publisher: Sribner
Publishing Date: September 18, 2018
Pages: 304 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1501133091

I have always been fascinated by my grandfather’s hands. Even as his memory slips due to Alzheimer’s, his hands tell his story. Discolored spots from years of being subjected to the sun’s rays are splattered across his skin. Rough calluses, cracks, and bruises persist. For as long as his body let him, he worked the land of his father, and his father’s father. He proudly added on additional acres where he and my grandmother raised my mother. Tending to the land, he grew corn and soybeans, in the off seasons caring for horses and pigs. When he wasn’t working the land, he was working with wood: headboards, bookshelves, dressers, and tables filled the house in which I grew up. I cannot begin to express how deeply I love and admire my grandfather.

It is commonplace for me read and study the experiences of families from across the country, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally read a story reflecting the experiences of my ancestors and providing a narrative as rich and nuanced as my grandfather’s hands. In her debut novel, Heartland, Sarah Smarsh recalls growing up as the daughter of a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer; in telling her story, she tells the stories of her parents and grandparents as well.

Heartland is certainly a memoir, but it is unique in that Smarsh provides societal context. She provides greater insight into combination of external forces and individual choices that impact a family over three generations. The lives and decisions of her grandparents, parents, and herself are paired with their proper social and economic realities. What begins as a family member’s irresponsible financial decision escalates into a crisis because of the larger impact from a national economic downturn. The unlucky illness of her father is, in fact, the direct result of a massive company’s negligent disposal of toxins. A generation’s lack of wealth and financial security is tied to the Smarsh neither downplays nor brushes off the individual choices that impacted her childhood and family’s well-being; rather, Smarsh recognizes that no one exists in a vacuum, and no matter how far off Wall Street or Washington, DC seem, their choices impact our families, too.

Smarsh’s story is not universal and should not be crowned as the story of middle America; however, it does provide insight into the current state of our economy. According to Smarsh’s recollection, her family—like many workers in the United States—didn’t just work hard but took pride in working hard. Every callus or crack in the hand is job well-done. My grandfather was the same way. He would come in from the farm or wood shop, put vaseline on the cracks, and rest—no complaint. Satisfaction for Smarsh’s family and for my grandfather was derived simply by owning a piece of land, caring for it well, and passing it down to their children.

And yet, as Smarsh surmises, “You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need” (42). We live in a world impacted by sin. One way I would personally argue sin is present in our society is the way we as a society devalue certain workers and families. Smarsh shares my belief that work—even  hard manual labor—is good. Eloquently, she said, “Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people” (43). In her writing, she holds this truth in partnership with the truth that the American economy has undervalued certain types of work, including the work of her family and my grandfather. Smarsh laments,

The countryside is no more our nation’s heart than are its cities, and rural people aren’t more noble and dignified for their dirty work in fields. But to devalue, in our social investments, the people who tend crops and livestock, or refer to their place as ‘flyover country,’ is to forget not just a country’s foundation but its connection to the earth, to cycles of life scarcely witnessed and ill understood in concrete landscapes. (122)

The Smarsh family is white. Throughout the narrative, Smarsh reckons with her family’s challenges and the role of race. Smarsh writes, “The American Dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price” (42). I found this acknowledgement to be profound. Smarsh was raised in a poor, hard-working family. Her acknowledgment that race is a player in our current economy does not negate her family’s experience. It is another complicating truth about the ways in which sin has shaped our society.

Along with the difficulty of the subject matter, there are times when Smarsh’s narrative can be confusing to follow. I often found myself wishing I had a visual of her family tree to help track names and relationships. I also wished for a timeline, as the novel’s organization is loosely chronological with anecdotes thrown in to bolster her observations. The experience of reading Heartland was also a challenge because of the framing of the book—Smarsh writes in conversation with her unconceived child. Smarsh broke her family’s generational pattern of becoming a teenage mother, and it is to this child that Smarsh tells her story. She employs a tactic that will catch the reader off guard, as it is subtly woven throughout the narrative.

At its core, Heartland is about class, inequality, and the devaluing of agricultural workers. Smarsh recognizes that class has not historically been present in our shared language as Americans. My generation thought that “lass didn’t exist in a democracy like ours . . . at least not as a destiny or excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth” (29). As a memoir, Heartland does not provide direct answers to how we address the societal conflicts in our society. It does, however, help readers ask the right questions as we consider what changes may help us strive to be a more just society.

I must make a confession. Growing up, I bought into a narrative that ultimately devalued the work of my grandfather. I lived in a large town my entire life, surrounded by rhetoric of progress and development. Visiting the family farm felt like taking a step back in time, and I was allergic to everything, so all around it would be a miserable experience. Now living in a large city, brimming with academics and an urban identity, I understand my rural identity more clearly. I long to drive through the rolling hills in Southeastern Iowa right before harvest, seeing for myself the fields of gold. I miss summer dinners of BLTs and corn-on-the-cob. I regret not asking more about each scar on my grandpa’s hands, learning about his life, his family, and the land that our family has cared for two centuries. There are some questions I will never get to ask now, but Heartland helped me more deeply connect with my own history. For that, I am most grateful.

About the Author
  • Chelsea Maxwell is Program Associate for the Center for Public Justice Families Valued initiative, an initiative promoting policies that support and honor God's call to both work and family life. Chelsea holds a Bachelor's of Social Work from Dordt and Master's of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is a former intern of CPJ's Christians Investing in Education initiative and was a Shared Justice Policy Fellow for What Justice Requires: Paid Family Leave. A native of Iowa, she now lives in the District of Columbia.

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