All memoirs are unique of course. Our own story is always one of a kind. But I’ve just finished Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.

This memoir has left me rocking and reeling. I, too, grew up on a farm, which I long ago left. Sarah Smarsh’s farm was in Kansas out from Wichita. My farm was in Alabama, close to the Mississippi border.

That was the unsentimental power that came with the struggles of a poor woman’s life: dry humor rather than a sense of victimhood, an unemotional appraisal of your own inevitable death…. In their most sober, aligned moments, the women before you carried that grave strength like queens. (Her Grandma has just informed her she wants to be buried without a bra because she always hated them!)

Dorothy, Betty, Pud, Polly, Jeannie—the psychological weight of their lives forced them into profound awareness. It was a way of experiencing the world that higher education has a way of erasing on campuses founded by men who exalted logic and intellect as the only path to knowledge. They had a confidence in their own intuition, a sort of knowing deeper than schooling can render and higher than the dogma of a church. If they could bear the pain of experiencing their world long enough, without numbing themselves, they had what you might call “powers.”…. Something about being a woman, though, came with an old wisdom that I feel fortunate to have inherited.

Sarah Smarsh carries me inside being poor without knowing you are poor. And she helps me see, and feel what poverty does to human lives. Heartland is an educational book that also manages to be quite profound. And interesting.

Jo Ann Lordahl

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