Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Review of House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
Was a-farmin' on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker's store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore. 
From the song "I Ain't Got No Home" by Woody Guthrie

Besides hundreds of folk songs like "I Ain't Got No Home," Woody Guthrie wrote two memoirs, Bound for Glory and Seeds of Man: An Experience Lived and Dreamed.

When it came out in 1943, Bound for Glory was praised as "the throaty song of a dust bowl troubadour." Bob Dylan later said Guthrie's book "sang out" to him "like the radio."

And when Seeds of Man was published posthumously in 1976, novelist James Dickey argued that Guthrie was not just a folk singer but a folk hero, "by far the most gifted of all the earth-poets, people-poets." Dickey said, "Within these pages there is something far beyond and far deeper than anything that the graduate schools of our or any nation could ever comprehend ... There is Woody."

Now there is a Woody Guthrie novel, House of Earth. Edited by historian Douglas Brinkley and actor Johnny Depp from a 1947 manuscript at the University of Tulsa, it is being published for the first time on February 5, 2013 by HarperCollins.

Tike and Ella May Hamlin are young lovers who live in a rented shack on an isolated farm a mile off of Route 66 in the harsh plains of West Texas. They dream of saving enough money to buy one acre of land so they can build a sturdy adobe house of their own, a house of earth.

Tike is a "medium man" who is "medium wise and medium ignorant." He's a "wild man who wants to fight the world and everything in it," who is unapologetic about his cravings and impulses, but is more "outright and honest than lots of the ones who claim to be so holy."

Tike makes Ella May laugh. She is known for her laugh. "She laughed best, most times, when the crops, the winds, the debts, the worries, the fears and doubts of the world splashed their highest ... she was, in a way, and in the same breath, making a little bit of fun a her own self, and all of her earthly sorrows in one breath."

"Everywhere that you look, do you see me?" Ella May asks Tike, and Tike replies, "Never did just think of it like that before, but I reckon since you mention it, I s'pose that I do. Why?" Ella May answers:
Just thinking that I've always seen you in this way ... I always did. And I don't really know why. When I look out across the country I see you. Out across the farm I see you. Out across the room here I see you. And I guess that the experts that know about such things would say oh well, it is just because I loved you. And I guess it is. I guess it is why.

Tike and Ella May talk about love. They joke about the different ways men and women use profanity. They question why God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. They wonder about the different ways men and women experience sexual pleasure.

One winter night, when Ella May is washing supper dishes and Tike is pasting strips of newspaper on the walls of the their one-room shack to keep out the dust and dirt and wind, Tike asks Ella May to tune in their old radio so they can listen to music while they do their chores.

The shabby radio doesn't work well, and at first they get a lot of distorted feedback and static, but eventually they make out the faint sounds of a St. Louis jazz band "playing some dreamy, bluesy Louisiana ragtime."

Then the music fades away and Tike and Ella May hear a voice on the radio. An educated-sounding "big government man" says the economic depression is due to oversupply, and he urges farmers to leave their fields idle and slaughter their animals. Tike and Ella May scoff and laugh out loud about having misplaced their own "over supply of meat and things to eat."

Tike and Ella May huddle in the dark, trying to tune in an old radio to find something to bring joy to their lives, something to reassure them and give them hope, and to help them make sense of the world.

To me, reading House of Earth is like that, except instead of a "big government man," I've tuned in to the still-living Woody Guthrie and his mesmerizing "flow of words from some unconscious place."

In House of Earth, Woody is still there, he's still singing out like the radio, and his voice is just as "powerful, moving, ruggedly beautiful, honest, and complete" as ever.

~Michael May, Adult Services

Thanks to Annie Mazes at Library Love Fest for the galley of House of Earth.

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