Out Here in the Heartland: Writing the Working Class
I’m reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Early in the book, when Smarsh is tracing the courtship and eventual marriage of her grandparents in rural Kansas, I hit a passage that I just have to read to my wife. “She’s talking about our people,” I say to Cathy, and then I read:
During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.
By the time I neared the end of this passage, my voice began to waver, and I felt an ache in my throat as tears welled up in my eyes. I was crying because a writer, in simple, direct language, lush with authoritative detail, had touched me. Sarah Smarsh, by paying close attention to the particulars of her grandparents during the wheat harvest of 1977, had taken me back to what I’d been too young to notice when I was a teenager—the regal dignity of my mother and father, and of all the other working class folks I knew, as they shouldered the burden of trying to make a good living for themselves, and for us, their children, in a country where the deck was stacked against them. They weren’t favored by geography, education, ancestry, social class, political sway, or economics. They were born into the working class, and for the most part, that’s where they stayed. Outside of an occasional gripe about crop prices or grain embargoes, they rarely complained. They were too busy. They put their heads down, and they worked.
Reading this passage from Smarsh, I, too, recalled the dust of those wheat fields and the clogged sinuses and the whirr of oscillating fans stirring the hot air in those hot bedrooms. I remembered my mother heating water on the gas stove and pouring it into a basin, so we could bathe with washcloth and soap. On the farm, we had no running water, no shower, as apparently Smarsh’s grandparents did, but we were just as dirty. When you work the land, it becomes a part of you. Its dirt sticks to your sweaty arms, leaving black lines in the creases of your elbow, your neck, and it sticks in your throat and your sinuses and your eyes. You breathe it, eat it, wear it. So many nights, I remember my parents and I driving into town after a day of cutting wheat—this would have been later in my teenage years when we had a house in town with running water and a bathtub where we could clean ourselves after a day on the farm—and my mother telling me to go into Billy Jones’s Drug Store to get the evening newspapers because, as she said, “I’d be ashamed for someone to see me looking like this,” and I’d go, my steps heavy in my work boots, my jeans dusty, my t-shirt streaked with dirt, and I’d hope none of the town kids would be there to see me.
Reading that passage from Smarsh brought all this back to me, and I felt the tears begin to come. This is what a good writer can do. She can make her life so vivid it can touch something in your own experience. When you’re a Midwestern writer—particularly one with rural roots like mine—you’re never writing to merely tell a story. I write to document what my parents and the others like them never could: the toil, the striving, the beauty, the brutality, the dignity, the grace. I write to preserve the nobility of those on the fringes, those out here in the flyover zone that some people—richer people, more educated people, more powerful people—would prefer to ignore. I write to speak for my people, some of whom are gone and many of whom are still here, still fighting for a piece of the American dream, still working.
Growing up, I wanted to tell stories. Eventually, I told enough of them, and I told them well enough, to find a way of making a living that didn’t involve the sweat and blood and dirt I knew as a younger man. I was lucky. Somehow I was blessed with the power of language. I write to speak for those who can’t. I write to make it impossible for people to look away from those they’d rather not see.
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