‘Our Bodies Were Born into Hard Labor’

Eugene Richards
An abandoned farmhouse, 2005; photograph by Eugene Richards from The Run-On of Time, the catalog of a recent exhibition that originated at the George Eastman Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It is distributed by Yale University Press.

As told in her ambitious and moving new memoir, Heartland, Sarah Smarsh’s life was ripped right out of a Bruce Springsteen song. “Spare Parts,” for one: “Bobby said he’d pull out Bobby stayed in/Janey had a baby it wasn’t any sin.”

That’s pretty much the tale the author tells of her own conception, except that her father was Nick and her mother was seventeen-year-old Jeannie. On Halloween night, 1979, Nick and Jeannie are having sex in his parents’ basement when Jeannie says, “Don’t come in me!” Nick pays no attention. Like most Springsteen songs, the story ends in melancholy, or what Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, his great Victorian novel about the debasement of poor country women, called “the ache of modernism.”

That unguarded moment did produce Sarah Smarsh and this book, which is all about unwanted babies: having them, raising them, and resenting them. She is unerringly acute on this much-avoided subject. Of herself, she writes, “I thus was the proverbial teen pregnancy, my very existence the mark of poverty. I was in a poor girl’s lining like a penny in a purse—not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production.”

By her account she was the first to break the cycle of poverty and teen pregnancy to which women’s lives in her family have been strapped, as to a wheel, for five generations across the fields of rural Kansas. As in Tess, another pastoral drama about “the shaded side of a well-known catastrophe,” the woman pays and pays and pays. Violence done to women runs parallel to another major theme of the book, which involves the violence done to lives dependent on the land by both natural forces—storms and tornadoes—and unnatural ones, such as the ill economic winds ever blowing from Washington.

There are occasional fond recollections here of the prairie earth and its bounty—“peach and walnut trees, thickets of boysenberries, the fields of alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat”—and bittersweet ones of rides on a hayrack or wooden sled pulled by a well-lubricated guy on a tractor. But moments of peace and satisfaction are few: the narrative as a whole proves an unremitting saga of physical struggle and bruising misfortune. For this family, poverty is defined not by a line on a graph but by damage done to their bodies by labor and want. “While we never starved or went without shelter in a chronic way,” Smarsh writes, “we all knew what it felt like to need something essential—food, shoes, a safe place to live, a rent payment, a trip to the doctor—and go without it for lack of money.” Her…

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