Sarah Smarsh’s passionate Heartland (Scribner, $26) uses various narrative strategies to call attention to the overlooked “distance between how poverty is handled in public policy and what it looks like in human lives.” Specifically focusing on rural white working class poverty, Smarsh notes both how hard it is to talk about class in America and how little what sparse language there is has to do with her family of Kansas wheat farmers, carpenters, and waitresses; her relatives neither fit the definitions of “redneck,” “roughneck” or “hillbilly,” nor conformed to the stereotypes for “trailer trash.” Far from being lazy, Smarsh’s people work incessantly, often holding down three or more jobs at once. The product of generations who survived the harsh prairies by knowing that “you either work together or starve alone,” Smarsh learned early that “what poverty requires” are “creative, industrious people.” So why did these hard-workers have so much trouble paying the bills? Looking around at her mother’s and aunts’ teenage pregnancies, multiple marriages, and frustrated ambitions, she decided not to bring a child into poverty, but to break the cycle that had made her own childhood so unsettled.
This is far more than an inspirational guidebook for single parents struggling to raise children in a difficult world. The Power of Presence (Grand Central, $26) is also a moving memoir. Joy Thomas Moore is the mother of Wes Moore, the author, commentator, and now president of the Robin Hood Foundation whose own story of transforming from a troubled African-American adolescent to Rhodes Scholar became a national bestseller. His mother, whom he credits for much of his success, turns out to have a life story equally compelling. Joy Moore’s book recounts how she found her way through ill-considered decisions, personal tragedy, financial hardship, family medical crises, and the pressures of raising three small children alone. A successful businesswoman today, the life lessons she shares are wise, never preachy, and full of candor and grace. Woven into her narrative are poignant stories of other women she has met along the way who exemplify strength, resilience, and her secret sauce of parental success, “the power of presence” in one’s children’s lives.
Bittersweet, empathic, and honest, Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, $26), recounts her experiences as a Korean adoptee of white parents, follows her search for her birth parents, and charts her changing views of parenthood as she becomes a mother herself. Chung’s narrative unfolds her memories of facing racism growing up in a rural Oregon town, hushed attempts to excavate family secrets, and then the trials of new motherhood. She weaves in the perspective of her birth sister who grew up under vastly different circumstances, a narrative that ends in a complicated but heartfelt reunion between the two women. Chung’s lived experiences and poignant observations paint an intricate portrait of both Asian-American and transracial adoptee identity that challenges the prepackaged myths and assumptions held by society about both groups. All You Can Ever Know is moving and engaging from start to finish. The story is a relevant read for today, but also ends on a note of unabashed hope for tomorrow.