Smarsh escaped poverty, she believes, because, unlike her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she didn’t become a teenage mom. In part, she says, this was because she was among the first generation of her family to have at least one constant home, dating to when her maternal grandmother, Betty, married her seventh husband, Arnie. (By contrast, Smarsh’s mom, Jeannie, moved 48 times before starting high school.) Such is the reality of poverty. The memoir flickers to life at that home, a humble farmhouse on 160 acres of wheat fields outside Wichita.
With an abundance of land and an under-abundance of cash, Arnie gleefully invents new forms of entertainment. One weekend he loads family and their sloshing solo cups into a tattered canoe, hitches it to his truck and rips through the snowy fields. Through the stories of Smarsh’s witty but withholding mother, her tender but luckless father, her generous step-grandfather and hazardously vivacious grandmother, Smarsh shows how the poor seldom have the vantage to identify the systemic forces suppressing them. Rather, they make do.
From the farm, the book circumambulates several major themes: body, land, shame. Smarsh describes the toll of labor on those who have no choice but to do it — a work force priced out of health insurance by its privatization. Neighbors are maimed by combines and the author’s father nearly dies from chemical poisoning a week into a job transporting used cleaning solvent. Women absorb their husbands’ frustrations, blow by blow. Meanwhile, big agribusinesses strangle the region’s family farms, leaving behind a brackish residue of shame — the shame of being poor and white.
“Poor whiteness,” Smarsh writes, “is a peculiar offense in that society imbues whiteness with power — not just by making it the racial norm next to which the rest are ‘others’ but by using it as a shorthand for economic stability.”
Smarsh is an invaluable guide to flyover country, worth 20 abstract-noun-espousing op-ed columnists. She was raised by those who voted against their own interests. “People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy,’ and for us there was no more hurtful word,” she writes. “Within that framework, financially comfortable liberals may rest assured that their fortunes result from personal merit while generously insisting they be taxed to help the ‘needy.’ Impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: Concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them.”