Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.
——– Dwight Eisenhower
Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (Scribe) is a tale of life within the expanses of America away from its two respective coastlines. It reveals a life of poverty and struggle generations in the making. It is also a tale of what it means to be working class in an area of isolation – a story that has many parallels with those of us who live away from Australia’s political and economic powerhouse cities of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.
Smarsh is a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer and comes from a long line of teenage mothers. Her parents and grandparents have seen and experienced violence and addiction that is so entrenched it becomes normalised. Sarah counts herself lucky to be the first woman in her family to not be physically abused by her father. As she recounts tales of her childhood, she does so with a mix of unflinching honesty and love. ‘Two things can be true at the same time’, she says. ‘I’m grateful for my early life, and I wouldn’t wish it on any child.’
The story of the Smarsh family is one of American history and the failed American Dream. Her family arrived in the 1800s, venturing from New York City to the Kansas prairie via Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The promise of the frontier lured them to rural Kansas where they became entrenched, unlike others who were unable to last in the tough conditions. Blizzards, drought and infections riddled many rural communities. ‘Intimate problems, all of them, but ones that stemmed from public policy: The federal government had given them land to work as though the arid plains were just like the rich eastern soil, as though it was a great deal. By and large, it wasn’t wealthy folks who took the offer.’
The story of the Smarsh family is one of American history and the failed American Dream.
For many, this began a distrust of those beyond them financially, politically and geographically that spanned generations. Smarsh offers her memory as an example:
I knew, so deeply that I wasn’t even conscious of it, that my family was on the outside of something considered normal. That normalised thing was the city, suburbs, even little burgs of three thousand people. We called them all ‘town’… Places with banks, schools, stores, and county courthouses – let alone skyscrapers – represented to us a sort of power we were removed from, a disenfranchisement not only by culture but by geographic distance.
This bred in us a distrust of just about anyone who held a power we didn’t – even those who tried to help.
As I write this piece, a storm front is hitting the coastal areas of South Australia. Outside I hear the wind gaining strength, rain turns to hail sporadically and the lights begin to flicker. Before I rush to charge my laptop and phone, I think of all the power outages that have littered life here. When the so-called ‘50-year storm’ hit the state in 2016, it wiped out power to the entire population of 1.7 million. It would go on to fuel a political fight over who could make the most money and clout from the drama, often with the people of South Australia forgotten amid the grab for cash and pageantry.
When big international bands announce Australian tours (leaving Adelaide yet again off the schedule), we groan about our status as the ‘flyover state of Australia’. We see footage on the news of farmers at the top of the Murray River irrigating their thirsty cotton crops, while here at the bottom of the stream our farmers struggle through recurring droughts. The major political parties are all based in the big cities to the east and fight among factional lines that ignore many of us.
What most people here want to know is that there will be enough jobs for themselves and for their kids, so they won’t have to move away like so many before them. They want to know that there will be enough power to maintain supply and that they will be able to afford the soaring prices. People here want sustainable living in the truest sense of all: food, water, shelter and safety.
While Heartland tells a personal tale, it also goes some way to explaining the political phenomenon sweeping the isolated regions of both the United States and Australia, that of an angry ‘white working class’. Smarsh offers the provocation: ‘If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?’ This is obviously a confronting line of inquiry to raise, in that it brings forth several questions Australians often cringe at and rarely wish to discuss: race, class and regionalism. But Smarsh’s use of her childhood story to tell the bigger tale of class in the failed American Dream kept revealing to me comparisons between her life in Kansas and that of Australia’s regions west of the money and power in the rain-soaked east coast.
The distrust of large public institutions and offices – the feeling of distance between the wheels of power and those doing the grunt work to keep the economy running – offer some insight into the rise of Trump in the United States and of the boom in minor parties here in Australia. What is also often ignored in political analysis is, as Smarsh writes, not a lack of intelligence by the so-called lower classes but the fact their eyes are often focused on immediate concerns. Smarsh says her mother ‘voted for Reagan because a cultural tide told her it was the right thing to do, and she had little time or resources to question the wave of sentiment the country was riding.’ When those with the loudest voices offer opportunities when few exist, and life is lived day-by-day, pay cheque to pay cheque, they are almost impossible to ignore.
What is also often ignored in political analysis is not a lack of intelligence by the so-called lower classes, but the fact their eyes are often focused on immediate concerns.
Smarsh’s story in Heartland is, at the end of the day, the result of globalisation on the working class. Smarsh writes: ‘Where once poverty was merely shamed, over the course of my life it was increasingly monetised to benefit the rich – interest, late fees, and court fines siphoned from the financially destitute into big bank coffers.’ It is a system where the poor are attacked and often thrown into competition against each other through political actions that play to intolerance.
The effect of globalisation on the working class is also a central theme of South Australian writer Royce Kurmelovs’ most recent book, Boom and Bust: The Rise and Fall of the Mining Industry, Greed and the Impact on Everyday Australians (Hachette). Kurmelovs writes that following the immediate decline in the mining boom, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett ‘started talking about trimming the fat. Barnett took a scalpel first to those at the bottom when he spoke about the need to cut costs by closing Indigenous communities, or at least cutting off their power and water. Remote pastoral stations weren’t included.’
More recently the federal Morrison government has reassigned money from the National Disability Insurance Scheme to provide relief to farmers in western New South Wales facing debilitating drought. As those without options become played further and further by those with plenty, it breeds hostility.
Helen Elliott, in her review of Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt (MUP), writes that as we become more and more distrustful after generations of deceit, we become a group of people ‘experiencing the opposite of entitlement. There isn’t a word for this state. “Disenfranchised” isn’t right because these people never felt “franchised” in the first place. The opposite of entitlement is to feel that there are things in the world that are wonderful but they will never be for you.’
There is so much more to discuss from reading Smarsh’s Heartland. The disposability of the working class is palpable. The ways Smarsh has seen, over her lifetime, the privatisation of health care manifest conditions in which the greatest challenges her family overcame – her mother haemorrhaging in childbirth, her grandmother’s misdiagnosed collapsed lung, her father’s horrific chemical poisoning on the job – become insurmountable to working class people today. The mechanisation of farm work and the rise and fall of manufacturing (in which I would include mining in Australia) create hazards cutthroat to the point of negligence. Smarsh writes:
The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you. Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another.
As those without options become played further and further by those with plenty, it breeds hostility.
While Heartland occasionally becomes repetitive in its telling, particularly of early family life, it remains grounded in the place from which it grew. Like the work of local writers such as Kurmelovs, it takes fellow outsiders to tell the stories of those of us who are outcast by politicians, by the media, by geographical distance or financial influence to power.
The most powerful device used by Smarsh is the truth: hers is not a story of ‘rural flight’, of running away and hiding accents or treating home with disdain in order to succeed. Hers is a story of creating a better life for a daughter she chose not to have in order to break her family’s cycle of teenage motherhood and poverty. Just because her daughter is invisible doesn’t stop her from being a driving force both in Smarsh’s life and in her book.
Perhaps one day the places people treat as invisible by flying over or driving past without thought, or ridiculing as backward because of their isolation, will have an equal seat at the table too. It’s a shame it’s taken us getting to this point to realise all anyone ever wants is to be listened to.