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Heartland

A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Narrated by: Sarah Smarsh
Length: 9 hrs and 35 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (535 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize

Instant New York Times best seller

Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Post, Buzzfeed (nonfiction), Shelf Awareness (nonfiction), Bustle, and Publishers Weekly (nonfiction).

An essential audiobook for our times: an eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in America that will deepen our understanding of the ways in which class shapes our country. 

Sarah Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side, and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up on a farm 30 miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working class Americans living in the heartland. 

During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, she enjoyed the freedom of a country childhood, but observed the painful challenges of the poverty around her; untreated medical conditions for lack of insurance or consistent care, unsafe job conditions, abusive relationships, and limited resources and information that would provide for the upward mobility that is the American Dream. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves with clarity and precision but without judgement, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country. 

A beautifully written memoir that combines personal narrative with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland examines the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less. 

“A deeply humane memoir that crackles with clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works - including Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville - that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline...Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra” (The New York Times Book Review)

©2018 Sarah Smarsh (P)2018 Simon & Schuster

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

My favorite memoir of 2018

I've read a massive amount of nonfiction this year, including memoir, and this is my favorite memoir of 2018.

Unlike many memoirs, there is some political and cultural context here. Also, unlike many memoirs, this is not just the author's story but the story of both sides of her family (going back a couple of generations), the story of a place, a time, class, the politics of the time, farming, etc. So it doesn't suffer from the self-absorption that memoir can. In fact, she leaves so much out of her own story that there are a few lines near the end of the book that are so strange and jarring that I felt like Smarsh had probably written about that particular subject, edited it out of the story, and all that remained were these few lines as an accidental artifact. There are another few lines she tosses in that were kind of shock because it completely changed the way I thought about her and they weren't mentioned till the end. I Googled after reading the book to see if there was anything else by her on audio and--another shock--she's very pretty, but that's pretty much left out of the book and it's that would have informed the story a little more, i.e., her two biggest desires: Not be a teenage mom and to get an education. While I pretty much understood from how Smarsh wrote the story that breaking a generational pattern of teenage motherhood would be difficult, I have to imagine it was even more for a very pretty teenager.

Don't let the "you" she occasionally addresses put you off. While it is threaded through the book, it fades as the book goes on. It was a sort of interesting literary device and she claims that it's true--she really did speak to that "you" so go with it!

If you don't read a zillion books a year and are choosing between popular ones this year (like Educated), choose this one. The writing is far better and the fact that this isn't a story of a childhood that populated by violent, mentally ill religious nuts, a childhood that most people can't imagine like in Educated, but in the end is so much more interesting says a lot about Smarsh's skill as a writer.

16 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Kansas and the USA

The story setting in Kansas, my home state, resonates with me. This story could be told in any state. Ms Smarsh’s emphatic remarks about treatment towards women are sometimes burdensome, but they should be heard and borne. Cheers to this author for her journey and telling this story about her family and her home and her determined path to control her destiny, recognizing and refusing to repeat the dysfunctional patterns of the people in her family that she clearly loves.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Honest, Raw, Insightful

Sarah's thoughtfully researched and first-hand account of growing up in a rural farming community is powerful and provocative. She weaves the stories of 3 generations of women and the hardships they face in the wake of being born poor and female. Beautifully read by the author.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Powerful and gripping.

This is the most impactful book I have read in years. I was raised mere miles from the author’s home during roughly the same time period. Her perspective, attention to detail and raw truth telling are both brave and powerful. For the betterment of our society, this is a story that should be shared again and again.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Patsy
  • Wichita, KS, United States
  • 12-13-18

Very hard to follow

I had a tough time following who and when the story was telling. One minute. She was in 1970’s and without notice, she was back in 50’s. Years were not always specified. I needed a family tree to be able to follow who was being portrayed.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Changes your perspective

This is one of the most profound books I have ever “read.” It made me think, deeply, about myself, about my views, about my judgements, about my stereotypes, and most importantly, about others, specifically those who live in the fly over states. I hope it has changed me, or has started a process of changes, towards more humility, kindness, and tolerance. Time will tell. I bought Heartland in hard copy form, as a reminder of my experience while listening to it. Hoping that helps.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Not what I was expecting

I went in to this right after finishing J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. I expected this book to be similar in that there would be a greater emphasis on policy as it related to the lower class and suggestions on how to address current problems. This did not seem to be the author's goal because there was hardly anything about that. As such, to me it was just a series of stories that get exhausting way before the end. It may have been because I only listened to this while running or on a treadmill, but I also found her organization confusing. The story seemed to jump around from relative to relative, only to come full circle back to the same set of relatives in a same time period she had already talked about, and this seemed to happen multiple times. Finally, some passages were cheesy beyond belief. To me, this book was sometimes confusing and just one story after another, with not enough of the insight that I had been hoping for. If you're wanting more of a political aspect, I recommend Vance's Hillbilly Elegy instead.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Poetic and Historical Narrative

This was a poetic interweaving of family narrative and historical-political culture that thoughtfully tells a story of poverty is that familiar yet unknown. Smarsh is a brilliant writer who writes artfully and honestly. Everyone will be better for having read this book because of its authenticity, honesty, and compelling insight into life, work, struggle, and family.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Awful Narration - Valuable Story

This is a valuable account of what it's like to be white, working class and forgotten by society. Sadly, it's also the worst narrated work that I've heard on Audible so far. It's like listening to a robot with an American twang mince every single thing about it. Sentence structure is destroyed as the author reads random strings of words before picking up the next - if there's ever a case for professional narration, this is it. Read this book, don't listen to it for the sake of your sanity. Thumbs very much down.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Alison
  • GRANADA HILLS, CA, United States
  • 01-17-19

I Didn't Relate

We had very similar childhood experiences, lateral socioeconomic conditions... but I don't feel disadvantaged, I don't feel oppressed. I listened to one-third of the book, and left off there. Maybe things got better for her, maybe her perspective changed.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful