The Put-Upon: From the Heart in the Heartland

Oh, Lordy, here I go again, a splinter under my skin that I just have to worry up to light and air.

This time, it’s the term, “trailer trash,” that’s got me worked up. A name for those folks in economic dire straits with fewer and fewer chances to rise above their circumstances. A category into which to bunch the “miscreants,” the “losers,” the”hoodlums,” the “hillbillies,” the “rednecks,” the “worthless,”  the “shiftless,” the “lowlifes.” To put them there so as not to have to think of them as human, as people just like anyone, people who want comfort in their lives, who want to love and to be loved in return. People who want to lie down at night and close their eyes and feel the contentment of a life full of splendor. Who doesn’t want that?

Want to hear a term even more offensive than “trailer trash?” Try “tornado bait.” Try that out for size, particularly now when the spring storms are wreaking havoc across the country. Look at the photos of the damage–homes destroyed, lives lost–and ask yourself how anyone can  say those words. A turn here or there, a misstep, and that’s us on the evening news.

I grew up in a part of the country, the agricultural southeastern Illinois, where want was often the norm: want for food, want for shelter, want for comfort, want for love, want for opportunity. My family was luckier than most because my mother taught school, and no matter the whims of weather that could decrease the value of my father’s farm crops, we had her paycheck to keep us steady. Then one year she lost her job. The school board forced her to resign because they claimed she wasn’t strict enough with discipline. There we were, having to watch our pennies.

I remember my father driving us into Sumner on certain Saturdays to meet the commodities train. My grandmother lived with us, and she was blind with cataracts in a time when there wasn’t much to be done about that fact the way there is now. She received what they called “old age assistance.” I remember the line of folks at the railroad crossing in Sumner, standing there with their empty cardboard boxes, their bushel baskets, waiting for the train to arrive, waiting to fill those boxes and baskets with containers of powered milk, syrup, dry beans, peanut butter, rice, and more. I was too young to feel ashamed. I thought it was all grand.

Were we trailer trash? I suppose not since we still had our land and our house, but still we were struggling, the way so many people are these days. We were standing in that commodities line for a handout. I prefer to think of us at that time, just like I think of many of my characters, as being put-upon.

Here’s what I know: People end up in dire straits, sometimes from their own poor choices, sometimes because of circumstances they can’t control, and sometimes by a combination of both. “You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news,” Laney says at the end of my novel, Break the Skin, “that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.”

I understand the impetus for those ugly terms of  “trailer trash” and “tornado bait.” Generally, people use them so they won’t have to look too closely into the spirit of a person in trouble. Maybe it’s easier to dismiss that person than to face the fact that  he or she isn’t as different from us as we might want to think.

What does this have to do with writing? Empathy. The ability to live inside someone ‘s skin. It’s everything. The “put-upon” have voices. I tried my best to listen to them when I wrote Break the Skin. I didn’t mind where my characters happened to live. I didn’t mind the ill-considered moves they’d made. I felt privileged to be invited into their stories, to see what they had to teach me about the human heart and its longings.



  1. Jean on May 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    This is such a wonderful post. Thank you for writing it. I thought of it today as I caught the tail end of today’s edition of The Story. Two pieces on tornadoes — both compelling listening.

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks, Jean, and thanks, too, for sharing the link to these compelling stories.

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