November 11, 2020 8:36 AM EST

Growing up, Sarah Smarsh was surrounded by the type of women Dolly Parton so often sings about: impoverished women in rural America who use both their smarts and sexuality to get by as best they can—often despite the men who would hold them back. These women populated Smarsh’s 2018 memoir Heartland, a National Book Award finalist. And in her stirring, insightful collection of essays about the country music icon, she gives them and Parton their due for redefining womanhood even as their class and culture worked to keep them down. Smarsh anoints Parton a badly needed beacon: in a divided country, she remains that rare someone who everyone can love.

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