The Heartland and the Myth of the “Real” America

In 1958, The Saturday Evening Post published a series called “The Changing Midwest” that attempted to document the transforming towns and cities of the “once-isolated midlands” of the U.S. In an interview with a banker from Rushville, Indiana, the Midwesterner puts it plainly: “The old days are gone.”

It’s a sentiment that has been expressed in various ways for decades, but at its heart lies a question: What exactly were the “old days”?

In her recent book The Heartland: An American History, Kristin L. Hoganson uncovers histories of the so-called “flyover states” that challenge prevailing conceptions that the center of the country could ever be reduced to a homogenous, provincial set of Americans. As a historian with a background in U.S. foreign relations history, Hoganson contends that “America’s heartland” is as misunderstood as it is steeped in complicated, multicultural history with global reach. Rather than hailing as the “once-isolated” lands of American mythology, Hoganson says the Midwest has played an important role in the story of globalization, and our failure to understand its checkered — sometimes unsettling — past is a detriment to our country’s future.

In our interview, Hoganson discusses her book, what we might be forgetting about the “old days,” and how American misunderstandings of the Midwest have brought us to our current political landscape.

The Saturday Evening Post: In your book, you focus a lot on this myth of the “heartland.” You write, “the more entrenched the myth became, the more natural it seemed. The more distant its origins, the easier it became to forget that it did not arise from solid historical and geographical analysis, but rather from the stuff of political need.” What is the myth of the heartland, and what “political need” did it arise from?

Kristin L. Hoganson: By the heartland myth, I mean the sense of the rural Midwest as a quintessentially all-American place: as local, insulated, and isolated; as the ultimate national safe space. This seems to make sense because of geography. The Midwest seems buffered from the rest of the world because of its position in the middle of the country. But the Midwest, like the rest of the United States, has never been walled in or off. There has never been a fixed essence that we can regard as a national heart. The political need that you mentioned is the nationalist desire for some kind of core, for a sense of who the American people are at heart. But of course, the heartland of myth doesn’t represent the nation as a whole. It overemphasizes the whiteness and insularity of the United States. The seemingly nationalist need that the heartland myth fulfills might better be understood as a white nationalist desire to separate insiders from outsiders; to make exclusionary claims about who and what count as fundamentally American. The heartland myth does a great injustice not only to the United States but also to the people it purports to depict, because it distorts their history and hides far more fascinating stories.

The origins of the term “heartland” are early 20th century. A British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, coined the word to refer to a locus of power. In opposition to naval theories that focused on the control of sea lanes as the key to geostrategy, he theorized that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland would control the world. The term entered wide circulation in the United States during World War II in coverage of the fight for Europe. After 1945, the term continued to be used in reference to Eurasia, though with a focus on the Soviet threat. As the Cold War got colder, Americans began to apply the term to their own geographic center and capacity to wield power, as seen in references to the industrial heartland. Yet as the rise of long-range bombers and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles fostered more anxieties about nuclear destruction, the term took on new meanings. In contrast to the hard-edged industrial heartland, which signified power, the soft-focus heartland came to signify Americana. This latter heartland became the heartland of myth: a repository for nostalgic yearnings, a place of innocence and national essence that had to be protected from outside threats at all cost.

SEP: How do you think that myth of the heartland aids politics today? Not necessarily Trump, but maybe any political program or politician that purports to understand the interests of Midwesterners.

Hoganson: The heartland myth lends itself to an exclusionary vein of nationalism by suggesting that there is a real America that is somehow threatened by the actual majority of the American people. The idea of the heartland as a buffered place also lends itself to the idea that the United States can achieve security by walling itself off from the rest of the world. And the idea of the heartland as a vulnerable place hides the role of the United States in forging the modern world and the tremendous global power it has exercised. My point is that there is no going back to the heartland of myth because it never existed in the first place. And to those who are attached to the myth, I’d say that the history I uncovered is actually far more interesting and epic.

In a time of talk about building walls, hypernationalism, that understanding of place is very relevant to those kinds of discussions. In terms of rhetoric, I think what my book argues against is a sense of victimization. I would refer specifically to Trump’s rallies, including in Ohio. I think, rhetorically, what is happening in some of those speeches is an effort to say, “The rest of the world has taken advantage of you.” That “we are victims of the rest of the world and we’re finally going to stand up to the rest of the world.” A major point of the book is to think of the impact of the rest of the world on places that may not have been considered to be points of encounter, such as the rural Midwest, but also to recognize that the rural Midwest has been a place of power. That it’s not just a story of victimization; it’s a story of colonialism and empire. The exercise of power, including in small, Midwestern towns, and the ways those residents have benefitted from global systems of power, and how they have been very active in advancing U.S. power.

In the book, one of the people I trace is William McKinley. Not President William McKinley, although he too comes from Canton, Ohio, small-town Midwest, and was the archimperialist of the turn of the 20th century. But the McKinley I trace was a congressman who made several around-the-world trips to the U.S. colonial outposts in the Philippines, he took Caribbean cruises where he visited the U.S. colonies in Puerto Rico and the base in Cuba, the Panama canal. He was an arch proponent of U.S. empire-building as well as an arch proponent of global governance at a time when the United States was the rising power on the world stage. It’s important for people to recognize the ways the United States has exercised power globally and to understand that contemporary feelings of victimization really distort the overall history of the Midwest in the world. Part of it is an urban story, but it’s also in less likely places, like the rural places I write about.

SEP: You write about reckoning with the past, and Americans and Midwesterners reckoning with their own past as something that hasn’t really happened. What do you think that would look like? Have we begun to in any way?

Hoganson: I think that’s what people are doing right now. That’s a lot of what this spring-summer 2020 moment in history is all about: asking hard questions about the nation. Why have we fallen so short of our principles and capacities and how can we achieve justice, equality, and inclusion? My book is part of this larger effort. It pushes us to go beyond misleading mythologies, however comforting they may be to some, to understand more boggling, disconcerting, and even deeply troubling aspects of U.S. history. We will never get to a better place without understanding where we’ve been all along.

I think the book does two things. It helps explain part of the country to the flyers-over who have, at least in recent years, looked down on the rural Midwest, in an effort to make that flattened sense of place more 3-D for those who have dismissed the rural communities at the center of the country. But I also wrote it for people who live in those communities who I think in many cases have not fully appreciated their own community histories. In part, I think that’s because in historical scholarship other parts of the country have gotten a lot more attention than the Midwest. It’s been considered by historians recently as an overlooked part of the country. We’re in the middle of a time of revival of interest in Midwestern studies and Midwestern history. So, I think for people who call this part of the country home, there has been a certain disconnect from their past because of the comparative dearth of scholarship. And the scholarship that has existed on the rural and small-town Midwest has tended to be inward-looking and focused on smaller-scale stories of daily life without as much attention to bigger narratives and issues of power.

SEP: How did researching the Midwest differ from some of the other topics you’ve written about?

Hoganson: I uncovered so many unexpected threads while I was researching the book that I could not possibly follow them all. It was really hard to let some of them go. I also wanted to signal that the stories I tell in my book are not the whole story – I unearthed countless intriguing leads that I could not pursue. So the “archival traces” that start each chapter are a way of pointing to paths not taken and leads not followed. They are also about the excitement of conducting historical research – of uncovering nuggets that raise more questions than they answer; that make you want to know more; that remind you how strange and unexpected the past can be and what an emotional wallop it can pack.

As for what made the research different than my previous books, I am a newcomer to agricultural history, so it was a revelation to learn about things like the application of phrenological principles to pigs and the racialization of cows and bees. Learning about economic ornithology – relying on birds for insect pest control prior to the development of synthetic pesticides – was also an eye-opener for me. So was the discovery that students from China, India, and the Philippines who had traveled to the United States to study agriculture made Midwestern land grant colleges hotbeds of anticolonial activism prior to World War I.

As all this suggests, I was staggered to discover how much evidence of global interconnection could be found in agricultural journals and reports. I also benefited tremendously from advances in digitization. The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections – which are free to search, browse and download – contain millions of pages of searchable text that enabled me to track topics such as the UFO sightings that accompanied the rise of long-distance balloon competitions and support for global governance through the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

SEP: You wrote: “Since the beginning, the seeming locality of the Midwest has served colonialist politics, having originated in colonial denial.” Can you explain what colonialist politics you’re referring to? And what that colonial denial might be?

Hoganson: Locality did not exist in the Midwest until the pioneers – who had by definition come from someplace else – invented it. They did so in large part through the local histories they wrote, which established their place claims vis-à-vis the Native people they forcibly displaced. The idea of the rural Midwest as one of the last local places has hidden enmeshments in colonialism and empire. The history of the Kickapoo diaspora figures largely in the book as one example, but there are plenty of other examples, including histories of bioprospecting, military aviation in the barnstorming era, and piggybacking on the British Empire.

SEP: You moved to Champaign, Illinois from Boston to teach at University of Illinois. What was that experience like for you on a personal level?

Hoganson: I’m a sixth-generation Midwesterner, with family ties that go way back in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But I grew up in exile, mostly on the East coast. Even though I used to visit relatives in the Midwest as a kid and my first full-time job was in Chicago, I have to confess that I bought into stereotypes about flyover country. You can imagine my surprise when I turned on the radio upon moving to Champaign and got the weather forecasts for China, Argentina, and Brazil. I realized I had no idea where I’d landed. The book came from the disjuncture between my expectations and what I discovered upon arrival. I realized that all the books I’d been reading on globalization assumed that there were particular places of connection, and the corn belt was not one of them. Moving to Champaign made assumptions about urban globality and rural provincialism visible to me in ways that they hadn’t been when I was teaching in Boston.

SEP: The first chapter is about the Kickapoo people, who were removed from Illinois in the nineteenth century. So, how was the experience of researching the history of a largely erased group of people?

Hoganson: As a relative newcomer to Native American history, I was astounded to learn about the vast geographies traversed by the Kickapoo people in the nineteenth century. These stretched from the present-day Detroit-Windsor area, a historic homeland of the Kickapoo Nation, to the straits of Mackinaw, present-day Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, upstate New York, Washington D.C., Florida, Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma. People with Kickapoo names were performing on the streets of London in the 1850s as part of a traveling show.

Some Kickapoos moved to Coahuila, Mexico in the nineteenth century for respite from the pervasive anti-Indian violence they encountered in the United States, for a place of their own, and for the ability to move freely across space. One of the accounts that most moved me in the course of my research is that of Kickapoo people who lived under the international bridge between Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras Mexico, literally on the U.S.-Mexican border, before their U.S. citizenship rights were acknowledged in the 1980s. Their experiences may seem out of place in an account of the U.S. heartland, but Kickapoos have been heartlanders since before that term existed. Their claims to place precede the borders that have walled Indigenous people in and out.

Featured image: Farmer Raymond Coin at his 240-acre farm near Bemidji, Minnesota (Photo by Bill Shrout, March 18, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, ©SEPS)

Growing Up In America’s Heartland

By the middle of the 20th century, most Americans didn’t live in rural areas. Not even most Midwesterners. But I was born a fifth-­generation Kansas farmer, roots so deep in the county where I was raised that I rode tractors on the same land where my ancestors rode wagons.

During the 1860s, the Homestead Act invited any adult citizens or immigrants who had applied for citizenship — including, at least officially, single women and freed slaves — to occupy and “improve” an immense area west of the Mississippi River in exchange for up to 160 “free” acres.

That land had been inhabited for centuries by native peoples, of course. Those tribes had been harmed by European raiders long before the United States was formed. But the late 19th century marked the devastation of the Plains tribes as the federal government strategically and violently “removed” their people and annihilated the ­bison herds they followed for sustenance.

The cover of the book Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, as seen on a book's dust jacket and an iPad.
From Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Meanwhile, 1.6 million people, many of whom were poor whites, were welcomed west with the promise of land ownership. That was profit-motivated propaganda; the U.S. had given massive swaths of land to private railroad companies with the idea that the development they promoted and enabled would commercially invigorate the country from one coast to the other.

The concern was never about the people being summoned to farm the land. It was about turning land into a commodity and immigrants into its workers.

A handful of my ancestors came to the United States in the 1800s, stopped for a generation in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and took on the Kansas prairie by the 1880s. They could have stayed in New York City, as so many did after crossing the Atlantic. Instead, they ventured into the so-called frontier.

I grew up not knowing about that history, because my family had a way of not discussing themselves or the past. The stories I know, I know because I asked again and again. But as a child I nonetheless absorbed the self-­understanding that sustains a rural people who have grown and hunted their own food for a very long time. What I understood is that we were hard workers, and what we worked was the earth.

Many who tried that work as homesteaders didn’t last more than a few years on the prairie. They shot themselves in the head while blizzards buried their sod houses in drifts. They pushed farther west toward more verdant places when drought starved their crops and therefore their children. They took a Pawnee’s flint arrow to the thigh and died from infection. Intimate problems, all of them, but ones that stemmed from public policy: The federal government had given them land to work as though the arid plains were just like rich eastern soil, as though it was a great deal. By and large, it wasn’t wealthy folks who took the offer.

Those who managed to profit or at least subsist on their land soon saw the population tide turn. After the Homestead Act, it was only a matter of decades until the American industrial revolution made cities into hotbeds of ­economic potential. Factory smokestacks beckoned from city skylines, and agriculture became an option rather than a requirement for the underclasses. For some of them, a new system of state universities and land-grant colleges held the promise of higher education and work in office chairs, rather than on their feet.

But once my family got to Kansas, they stayed. They worked the land too hard and too fast for the soil to keep up, and the prairie wind buried their houses in dirt. Many people fled the Great Plains then, amid the Great Depression and black, hellish, roiling clouds of dust in the 1930s. Still, my family stayed. Maybe they wanted to leave but didn’t or couldn’t. I don’t know. But not even the Dust Bowl drove them out.

It wasn’t all bad. Though money was scarce, you would have had your basic needs met because we knew how to grow and build things.

By the 1950s, advancements in farming equipment finally allowed for the economic dream of something beyond mere subsistence. Farmers were working huge swaths of land, putting away a large surplus of grain that would be distributed around the world by way of new transportation infrastructure — ports, highways, and railroads the country had invested in.

Then came trouble with banks.

Land prices rose in the 1970s, and banks started granting farm mortgages using a farm’s productivity as collateral, regardless of a family’s ability to repay. When land prices fell during my 1980s childhood, collateral value did, too; interest rates spiked, and farms were foreclosed on in droves.

They called it “the farm crisis.” Family operations went under in record numbers, and federal farm bills didn’t stop the corporate and global forces that were devastating small farmers like us. During the first 10 years of my life, from 1980 to 1990, rural Kansas lost about 40,000 residents, while Kansas metro areas gained about 150,000.

That was the climate I came up in. All around us things were closing: the small-town department store, the hardware store with its tiny drawers stretching to the ceiling, the local restaurant. Lawyers took down their small-town shingles and doctors moved to cities.

But we held on.

It wasn’t all bad, that poor rural place. Though money was scarce, you would have had your basic needs met because we knew how to grow and build things. The popular image of Kansas is a monotonous, level expanse. If you drive through without getting off the interstate highway, that might be all you see for hundreds of miles, but some corners of Kansas are made of modest hills, woods, red-rock formations, slight cliffs. Still, my family fit the stereo­type as both a people and a place: farmers on flat earth.

An abandoned farm in Kansas.
Plains and simple: An abandoned homestead in Kansas. “Some of us saw beauty in that earth that people heading west toward the Rocky Mountains seemed to miss.” (Shutterstock)

Some of us saw a beauty in that earth that people heading west toward the Rocky Mountains seemed to miss. But the earth was more of a tactile experience than a view. We had it on us. Cars got stuck in muddy ditches after thunderstorms. My feet got stuck in the marshy edges of ponds full of cattails. Gravel got stuck in my knees when my bike tires slid on roads made of sand.

We pulled radishes out of the garden, rubbed them on our jeans, and ate them right there if we pleased because a little dirt was good for you. After a shower, it was still under our fingernails and in the grooves between our toes.

We rarely bothered to wash our cars and pickups because they went up and down muddy roads every day and what was the point? What came out of the dirt went into the kitchen. Grandma Betty showed me how to chop vegetables, peel potatoes, pull guts out of chickens, and beat the eggs they laid.

Grandma breaded pork chops Grandpa had butchered and put them in a hot skillet while I stood on a kitchen chair in my underwear running a hand mixer through a bowl of boiled potatoes and milk.

We were country people in the middle of the country, living in a way that, I gather from things they’ve said to me over the years, some middle-class people in cities and suburbs on coasts thought had died long ago. For someone who never worked a farm, for whom the bread and meat in deli sandwiches seemed to magically materialize without agricultural labor, the center of the country was a place flown over but not touched.

“I haven’t heard of anything like that since The Grapes of Wrath,” people with different backgrounds would say to me in all seriousness when I described life on the farm. They thought we didn’t exist anymore, when in fact we just existed in places they never went. It was an easy way to think, I guess. I rarely saw the place I called home described or tended to in political discourse, the news media, or popular culture as anything but a stereotype or something that happened a hundred years ago.

We were so invisible as to be misrepresented even in caricature, lumped in with other sorts of poor whites, derogatory terms applied to us even if they didn’t make sense. We lived on the open prairie, so we weren’t the hillbillies of the Smoky Mountains or the Ozarks. We weren’t roughnecks in oil fields; Kansas had a humble tap on oil thousands of feet below the prairie, but nothing like Oklahoma or Texas to the south. Redneck and cracker didn’t quite translate, since their American usage was rooted in the slave South, against which Kansas had lit many of the fires that sparked the Civil War.

Slang terms for my plains ancestors who built dwellings there from sod, the only available material for lack of trees, didn’t survive in common vernacular. We were so willfully forgotten in American culture that the most common slur toward us was one applied to poor whites anywhere: white trash. Or, since we moved in and out of mobile homes, trailer trash.

But as members of all sorts of stereotyped groups know, the popular image — selected or fixated upon by someone more powerful than you — doesn’t tell you much about the life.

For one thing, anyone who has lived it knows that what matters less than the trailer is where the trailer is parked. Ours was in the country by my father’s choice, on the land where he later built our house. The place was thought boring for being grassland — mountains and forests being the landscapes that more often inspire awe — but without hills and trees we had a bigger sky than Montana, an unobstructed view of bright color between dark thunder clouds like nothing I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Those displays were so grand outside a single-wide metal dwelling on wheels that it felt less like us having a good view than like God having a view of us. I could feel how small we were.

A Kansas farm, abandoned during the Great Depression.
Buried: Kansas farm in the depths of the Depression. “Many people fled the Great Plains then. … Still, my family stayed.” (Arthur Rothstein / Shutterstock)

I knew, so deeply that I wasn’t even conscious of it, that my family was on the outside of something considered normal. That normalized thing was the city, suburbs, even little burgs of 3,000 people. We called them all “town,” even the small ones seeming to lord over us when we wore dirty jeans to visit a bank teller wearing a suit from Dillard’s. Places with banks, schools, stores, and county courthouses — let alone skyscrapers — represented to us a sort of power we were removed from, a disenfranchisement not only by culture but by geographic distance. This bred in us a distrust of just about anyone who held a power we didn’t — even those who tried to help.

I rarely saw the place I called home described … as anything but a stereotype or something that happened a hundred years ago.

“I never seen a dime of it,” Grandpa Arnie would say about Farm Aid, the concert fundraiser begun in 1985 to save dying family farms. The founders were white singers from humble places: Willie Nelson, who was born the son of an auto mechanic during the Great Depression and spent the summers of his youth picking cotton in the Texas heat. John Cougar Mellencamp, who was born in small-town Indiana and became a grandfather at age 37. Neil Young — well, he was a middle-class hippie from Canada. Grandpa Arnie didn’t know or care about any of that. All he knew was that he’d never been to a big concert in his life, and he wouldn’t get to go to this one.

All around us, farm loans were underwater. Old farmers died and their kids sold everything off; many of them had already moved to cities, which their parents often encouraged for their survival. That economic collapse deepened a consensus within society that a talented person from the country would endeavor to “get out.” Some did. They got scholarships to college, blew town, and — their politics and economic prospects having changed — never looked back. That “rural flight” made way for the idea that country people can’t “make it” in a bustling metropolis. But the ability to measure distances for planting alfalfa and smell the right moment to cut it isn’t so different from the ability to map out a subway trip and feel when a stop has been missed.

Like all industrialized countries, America started out country and turned city. My people didn’t turn with it. Instead of striving toward glowing economic meccas, they stayed on tractors in fields, or in small towns where life struck many of them as not just good enough but preferable to bigger places. Often, it’s not that country people can’t hack the city but that they choose not to — or life just played out differently regardless of their desires.

When I was a kid, the U.S. was a few decades away from reckoning with the reality that the next generation would be worse off, not better off, than the one before it. But my community had been facing dwindling odds for generations. They knew that children like me likely wouldn’t and shouldn’t aim for life on a farm. Few country kids were pressured to keep a farm going.

Well ahead of middle-class America, for all my family’s emphasis on hard work, on some level we’d done away with the idea that it always paid off. Being as we got up before dawn to do chores and didn’t quit until after dark, it was plain that the problem with our outcomes wasn’t lack of hard work. The problem was with commodities markets, with big business, with Wall Street — things so far away and impenetrable to us that all we could do was shake our heads, hate the government, and get the combine into the shed before it started to hail.

Of all the forces that caused what social scientists call rural flight, the most powerful one during my childhood was perhaps industrialized agriculture, in which big farming operations with massive machinery churn out products. Small farms like my family’s, where the pigpen contained three sows and a litter of piglets, had no place in such an economy — one that was about more, bigger, faster.

In 1980, the year I was born, there were 65,000 hog farmers in Iowa, working out to about 200 hogs per farm; 32 years later, there were 10,000 hog operations with 1,400 animals each. Meanwhile, the grain industry consolidated, shutting down local co-ops. Rural jobs dwindled, people moved away, and the services and stores and schools that couldn’t be sustained by a hundred people boarded up.

There’s another sort of rural-urban imbalance, though: When so many people migrate to and populate cities that they experience over-crowdedness and high unemployment, sociologists call it overurbanization. For working people, the fantasy of the city can shake out just as poorly as 160 free acres of hard silt. That only became more true as I was growing up. Incomes kept falling, and costs kept rising. Cities were gentrified and became unaffordable.

It wasn’t just the death of the family farm you would have been born into but the death of the working and even lower middle classes, regardless of their place.

Somewhere along the way of America, people moved from farms to cities until the nation was a more urban place than a rural one. My father’s family had held out and held on for generations, though, preferring air to asphalt and lightning bugs to streetlamps. Or maybe they were just so far off the grid that they didn’t know any other life for comparison.

If I live to be an old woman and the trends of my early life continue, by the time I die, half the Kansas population will live in only 5 of 105 counties — people consolidated like seed companies. There’s a strength in that, environmentalists and economists might suggest, but perhaps a greater weakness.

Country music superstar Willie Nelson performs on stage during a Farm Aid concert.
Helping hand? Farm Aid fundraiser headliner Willie Nelson in 2018. “I never seen a dime of it,” my Grandpa Arnie said. (Brian Bruner / Bruner Photo)

President Dwight Eisenhower, a native of rural Kansas, said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” The countryside is no more our nation’s heart than are its cities, and rural people aren’t more noble and dignified for their dirty work in fields. But to devalue, in our social investments, the people who tend crops and livestock, or to refer to their place as “flyover country,” is to forget not just a country’s foundation but its connection to the earth, to cycles of life scarcely witnessed and ill understood in concrete landscapes. For a sustainable world, one in balance both economically and environmentally, the American heart needs a strong, well-supported, well-respected chamber outside its metropoles.

The life force that flows back into it will likely be from other places. The meatpacking towns of western Kansas, for instance, have become some of the most ethnically diverse places in the country as immigrants stream in from Mexico, the Middle East, and Central America to take factory jobs amid industrial agriculture’s boom.

Statewide, according to the 2010 census, many rural counties had declined, and more than 8 out of 10 Kansans were white. But the Hispanic population had grown by 60 percent in the last ten years. That’s a demographic shift not without tensions but one that has been embraced by some small-town whites, who knew their home must change to survive. As Europeans who moved west and built sod houses on the prairie learned, you either work together or starve alone.

Of all the gifts and challenges of rural life, one of its most wonderful paradoxes is that closeness born of our biggest spaces: a deep intimacy forced not by the proximity of rows of apartments but by having only one neighbor within three miles to help when you’re sick, when your tractor’s down and you need a ride, when the snow starts drifting so you check on the old woman with the mean dog, regardless of whether you like her.

When I was well into adulthood, the U.S. developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kinds of people. I knew that wasn’t right, because both sides existed in me — where I was from and what I hoped to do in life, the place that best sustained me and the places I needed to go for the things I meant to do. Straddling that supposed line as I did, I knew it was about a difference of experience, not of humanity.


From Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock