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Book Review: ‘Class,’ by Stephanie Land



CLASS: A Memoir, by Stephanie Land

The last time we encountered Stephanie Land, the author of the best-selling “Maid,” she was a single mother who cleaned houses in the Pacific Northwest to get away from an abusive boyfriend, stay out of a homeless shelter and sustain a seemingly far-fetched dream of one day returning to college to become a writer.

“Class” finds Land at the University of Montana, where she is an almost- 35-year-old English major juggling classes and child care, rent payments and maxed-out credit cards.

Millions of others, in school or out, have shared Land’s economically fraught experience; too often we know them only as statistics. But Land bares her soul and psyche, offering readers a look at her inner life with excruciating honesty. We get an intimate, utterly revealing sense of the anxiety generated by a bare kitchen cupboard or the guilt the author feels when deciding to squirrel away $50 to pay a grad school application fee rather than provide Emilia, her 6-year-old daughter, with an after-school snack of anything more than stale crackers and juice.

Land grew up in a middle-class household, but by the time of the memoir’s setting, she receives no support — emotional or financial — from either of her long-divorced parents. The courts have mandated that Jamie, her ex-partner, pay child support and take care of Emilia for a few weeks each year, but that lifeline is hardly reliable. Jamie calls her selfish for staying in college when, instead, she could be working a job that would provide Emilia with a life of more than Walmart clothes and Happy Meals.

The government seems in agreement, slashing Land’s food stamp allowance when Emilia turns 6 — since, with a child of school age, the mother is now expected to take a full-time job. “Nothing made me question my life choices more than knowing that my hours spent cleaning other people’s toilets to put myself through college weren’t enough — and that my hours spent earning a degree didn’t matter,” she writes. By removing her food voucher, “they were telling me that higher education was something I simply could not afford.”

Land makes a valiant effort to introduce a modicum of order and predictability to her life. She keeps a meticulous daybook planner and an accurate budget listing income and expenses. She commands a resourceful capacity to navigate the state’s welfare bureaucracy and the university’s degree requirements. She gets her papers in on time and plans her rare vacations well in advance. A professor calls both her writing and her personality “relentless.” It’s not meant as a compliment — but Land claims it as one.

Nevertheless, Land’s life remains one of chaos and insecurity. On a snowy Montana morning her car might not start; cleaning work proves unpredictable; child care remains chancy; housemates abscond; lovers and friends are here today and gone tomorrow. She feels a profound sense of isolation.

“Nothing had any sense of safety or permanence,” Land writes. “The possibility of losing the home where my child slept was always at the forefront of my mind and caused a constant, mind-buzzing anxiety attack. Repeatedly, whenever things started to feel secure, the floor would drop out from under me.” The fight to make rent, eat and find child care was constant. “I never got a break from it.”

The one financial obligation Land tried her best to ignore was the $50,000 in student debt she was piling up — a debt that she assumed would take decades to pay off, and could foreclose her purchase of a house, making Land one of America’s 44 million “indentured students,” a phrase coined by the historian Elizabeth Shermer. “Long-term financial planning is for people who aren’t living in poverty,” Land writes.

No book about what it means to be at the bottom of the working class can ignore the way our politics and culture have racialized poverty. Land knows that her whiteness affords Emilia and her a sort of “camouflage.” Except for the grocery store clerks who take her food stamps, few understand she is living on a desperate financial edge.

Indeed, throughout the book Land is enraged when those who do know of her precarity pronounce her “resilient” or “a survivor,” as if such a compliment elevates her status to that of the deserving poor — which might be another word for white. Moreover, an endorsement of the fortitude of those with so little is yet another way of ignoring the real problem: the absence of the cold, hard cash to buy the material goods and peace of mind necessary to ameliorate Land’s “constant, crushing panic.”

Land ends the book with her status unresolved — although it would have been easy enough for her to conclude on a far more gratifying note. Instead, we are left seething at the inequalities of our system.

It didn’t have to be this way. Enacted during the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit provided almost all American families with at least $3,000 for every dependent under 18. After reading Land’s memoir, one can guess with fair accuracy where this mother and child would spend that money and the impact it would have on their lives. Indeed, child poverty was cut nearly in half while the credit lasted.

As for the author, as we all know, she did become the celebrated writer of her youthful ambition, publishing a first memoir that became a wildly successful Netflix series. But Land knows that not one in 1,000 single mothers arrives at such a Hollywood ending.

CLASS: A Memoir | By Stephanie Land | Atria/One Signal | 273 pp. | $28