Being white and poor does not mean you’re trash
The family chronicle of native Kansan Sarah Smarsh is gaining a lot of press and nominations for literary prizes:Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (2018). Its poverty plays out on a farm in Kingman County, Kan., and in the nearby city of Wichita.
“We were ‘below the poverty line,’ I’d later understand—distasteful to better-off whites, I think, for having failed economically in the context of their own race. And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the county as a monolithic cultural wasteland. ‘Flyover country,’ people called it, like walking there might be dangerous. Its people were ‘backward,’ ‘redneck.’ Maybe even ‘trash.’”
In telling the multigenerational story of her family, Smarsh rejects the equation that white + poor = trash. “Our struggle forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: 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?”
That’s what Smarsh seeks to show. She begins her story with a farmer.
“Arnie, a man I would later call my grandpa, bought the farmhouse in the 1950s to raise a young family. He spent days sowing, tending and harvesting wheat. He eventually owned about 160 acres, which is a quarter of a square mile, and farmed another quarter he didn‘t own. That might sound big-time in places where crops like grapes are prized in small bunches. But for a wheat farmer in the twentieth century, when the price per bushel had been pushed down by the market even as yields had been pushed up by technology, it was just enough to earn a small living.”
That’s why Arnie also raised alfalfa, cattle and chickens. And “for extra money during the winter, when the fields were frozen, he butchered for a meat locker down the highway toward Wichita and sold aluminum cans he collected in barrels near a trash pile west of his pole shed.”
But Heartland is about heroines, not heroes. Women who fall in love, become pregnant and marry men at much too young an age. Their husbands abuse alcohol and, all too often, their wives. The men either abandon their families or force their young wives to leave them, fleeing in the family clunker with kids and whatever else will fit.
"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?”
Take Arnie’s second wife, the author’s grandmother.
“Betty wasn’t the farming kind. She’d spent her adult life moving among urban areas in the middle of the country—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring towns. She and her daughter, Jeannie, who would be my mom, first hit the road when Betty was a teenager. Their whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down. By the time Jeannie started high school, they had changed their address forty-eight times, best I can count. They didn’t count. They just went.”
Sarah Smarsh has left behind her grandfather’s Catholic faith: too many bleeding statues, too much talk about suffering. The irony is that her multi-generational story reads like an illustrated manual of church teaching.
It lays out how suffering enters our worlds as the result of sin. The women of Heartland make terrible decisions in their youth, choices about love that will limit them for life. And the story itself sells the doctrine of original sin, if one thinks of that as something more than an invisible soul-stain, inherited from Adam. Mothers give their children precarious childhoods, raising up women of low self-esteem and the men who prey upon them. In short, we are sinned against before we learn to sin.
Yet these women valiantly struggle against their circumstances. They’re the ones who hold their families together, who fight for custody of their kids, who live in trailers and drive to work in beat-up cars.
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:43-45).”
Our faith tells us that Christ chose to suffer on our behalf and that when we choose to do the same, in the service of others, we imitate Jesus in our own lives. That’s what the women of Heartland do in each generation. They may suffer the effects of sin, even yield to it, but they try valiantly to be the saviors of those whom they love. If only the rest of the church, also struck by sin, could reach out to the margins, could learn to suffer with them!
Our faith tells us that Christ chose to suffer on our behalf and that when we choose to do the same, in the service of others, we imitate Jesus in our own lives.
As is so often the case in those who reject the faith, what is really cast aside is an erroneous understanding of it. What remains is a piercing and perceptive grasp of what faith should mean. Sarah Smarsh writes:
“In my German Catholic farming community, we believed in Jesus. The crucifixion story, in particular, resonated: someone had given up his body for a cause. Jesus suffered on a cross for someone else’s soul, and we suffered in wheat fields for someone else’s bread—maybe even for the wafers we accepted on our tongues after priests transformed it into the body of Christ.
Like us, Jesus came from peasants. Near the altar of our tiny country church rested a sculpted scene of carpenter Joseph, teenage Mary and the baby Jesus. When I was very small, I thought my dad, who built houses for a living, was Joseph; my grandfather had hammered together the steeple above us and carved the communion rail from a walnut tree on our land. Females weren’t allowed to stand, let alone preach, at the altar beyond that rail; at the nearby Pietà, dusted with care by elderly women, I recognized in Mary’s face the emotional anguish of my mother, who became pregnant with me at seventeen.”