As a journalist, Sarah Smarsh, a “fifth-generation Kansas farm kid,” has reported on class, rural America, and economic inequality. In her memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, the first nonfiction SJP pick, Smarsh recalls her 1980s Midwestern upbringing and relays the stories of the family who raised her.
Throughout her memoir, Smarsh employs an unusual and effective technique, addressing a daughter who does not actually exist but rather represents the future that once seemed destined for her. Thinking of her own mother, pregnant with her at 17, Smarsh writes: “I 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.” Booklist calls Smarsh’s story “a trenchant analysis of the realities of an economic inequality whose cultural divide ‘allows the powerful to make harmful decisions in policy and politics.’“
The following books consider the implications of poverty from unusual perspectives and should inspire thought-provoking book-group discussions.
Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America
by C. Nicole Mason
Born to teenage parents in Los Angeles, Mason spent the 1970s and 1980s in poor, segregated neighborhoods. Her mother eventually married a drug dealer, which offered more stability than the family had ever experienced before; while they lived better than most of their peers, Mason always knew she’d need to escape—both from her stepfather’s abuse and from worrying about her younger brother. Moving from school to school was a constant, but her love of learning was not dampened by the constant flux or the upheavals in her home life: “I needed an anchor, something to keep me from drifting away. And school was it for me.”
by Tara Westover
To the Westovers, public education was the quickest way to put yourself on the wrong path. By the time the author, the youngest Westover, had come along, her devout Mormon parents had pulled all of their seven children out of school, preferring to teach just the essentials: a little bit of reading, a lot of scripture, and the importance of family and a hard day’s work. Westover’s debut memoir details how her isolated upbringing in the mountains of Idaho led to an unexpected outcome: Cambridge, Harvard, and a PhD. Though Westover’s entrance into academia is remarkable, her memoir is, at its heart, a family history—not just a tale of overcoming but an uncertain elegy to the life that she ultimately rejected..
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond
In this compelling look at home evictions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of America’s most segregated cities, Harvard professor Desmond profiles two landlords and several of their tenants. Desmond’s natural storytelling style easily moves from engaging narrative to straight reporting as he exposes the harrowing stories of people who find themselves in bad situations and shines a light on how eviction sets people up to fail.
The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls
Walls gracefully written memoir of the unconventional and impoverished childhood she spent years trying to hide is a modern classic. As a successful journalist, she remembers the hunger, jokes, and bullying she and her siblings endured, and she profiles her parents: her flighty, ill-suited mother and her brilliant but troubled father, whose ability to turn his family’s downward-spiraling circumstances into adventures allowed his children to excuse his imperfections until they grew old enough to understand what he had done to them—and to himself.
by J. D. Vance.
Things could have so easily turned out differently for Vance. Growing up in a working-class family riven by strife and seemingly incapable of escaping its rural Kentucky roots, Vance spent his youth bouncing between homes, a succession of father figures, and ever more explosive situations. In his story of how he overcame his upbringing to graduate from Yale Law School and embark on a stable and happy adulthood, Vance also pulls back to examine the larger social forces at work for white, working-class Americans with ties to Appalachia. The portrait that emerges is a complex one.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
by Stephanie Land.
An unplanned pregnancy ended Land’s dream of attending college in Missoula, Montana. An abusive boyfriend (soon to be ex-boyfriend), parents that weren’t financially or emotionally able to be supportive, and a lack of a social network further conspired against her until she and her young daughter found themselves living in a homeless shelter. What follows is a series of woefully low-paying, back-breaking jobs; attempts to navigate complicated and inadequate government assistance; and scenes of public shaming for “handouts.“
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
For her seminal on-the-job study of how a single mother (or anyone else) leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing and child-care subsidies, social critic Ehrenreich traveled the country working in low-paying jobs. Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D., resolved not to fall back on any skills derived from her education or usual work and to take the cheapest accommodations available. The “working poor,” she concludes, “are in fact the major philanthropists of our society.”
There Will Be No Miracles Here
by Casey Gerald
Gerald opens his memoir by describing himself at age 12, sitting in a church pew anticipating the Rapture, before starting at the beginning, as he remembers it. His mother struggled with mental illness and disappeared before he was a teenager, while addiction gripped his football-legend father, leaving Gerald in the rotating care of family and friends. He became a star student and football player in high school before excelling, on the field and off, at Yale. Gerald relates his extraordinary story with unsparing truth, no small amount of feeling, and a complete lack of sentimentality. Painful lessons and scenes of startling intensity are often pierced—and pieced back together—by light and humor. An accomplished public speaker, Gerald will hook readers with richly layered writing on poverty, progress, race, belief, and the actual American Dream.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
by Nancy Isenberg
Most people are well aware of what terms are not acceptable when talking about different races or ethnicities. But what about terms denoting class? Isenberg takes a close look at the history of poor whites in America and asks readers why it is seemingly acceptable to use such terms as white trash, crackers, and rednecks to describe this group of people. Covering colonial times to the present day, Isenberg tracks everything from Bill Clinton to country-boy culture to the rise of redneck reality TV.
Annie Bostrom is Booklist's Associate Editor for Adult Books. Along with reviewing both fiction and nonfiction, she is involved in the magazine’s extensive readers’ advisory programming efforts, including webinars and live events. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.