Buried away for 65 years in the mountain of unpublished lyrics, letters, notes, cartoons, and other seeds of genius Woody Guthrie left behind, House Of Earth is a read that was worth waiting for (even if the world didn’t know it existed).
Guthrie’s Dust Bowl novel, set in Great Depression-era Texas, is layered just as his songs were: on the surface are common words, common characters, and common feelings; further digging (as deep as you’d like to go) reveals great insight, passion, and poetry. Fueled by Guthrie’s own fascination with someday owning a piece of land and built-by-hand adobe house (a dream itself inspired by a five-cent USDA how-to pamphlet) House Of Earth is an everyman’s stew of rawboned fiction and thinly-veiled autobiograhical emotions.
Guthrie’s book feels like a stage play, offering scenes rather than chapters. Central characters Tike Hamlin and his wife Ella May seem destined to live out their days on their rundown dirt farm with their wooden shack slowly falling apart around them. Ella May is the more grounded of the two (although she left the security of a wealthy family to marry Hamlin) and focuses on the day-to-day; Tike fluctuates between periods of head-down, back-bent labor and spiraling off into moments of goofy fantasy and daydreaming. (“His hard work came to him by spells and his lazy dreaming came over him to cure his tired muscles.”) She knows the cows have to be milked and another layer of old newspaper needs to be pasted over their worn-board walls to attempt to keep some of the weather on the outside; he bucks a pretend horse around in a circle in an impromptu moment of foolishness and yanks at his hair in frustration at the injustice of the haves and the never-wills. Guthrie proves that the two are meant for each other, however (one could say that he had to in order to justify his own way of life), in moments as pure and simple as hand-in-hand walks or as fiery and erotic as their lovemaking in the hay of their cowshed. Despair is never far away in this world, but love holds it at bay.
The best moments of House Of Earth occur when Guthrie’s descriptions – be they coming from his characters’ souls or from the voice of the great overviewer – break into stream-of-consciousness ramblespeak: seemingly random rhymes and groups of syllables for cadence’s sake prove to be the perfect vehicle for what needs to be expressed. And that is classic Woody: sing-songy raps repeatedly turn out to be bulls-eye brilliance. (The truth is, if House Of Earth been published before On The Road, Kerouac’s style wouldn’t have seemed quite as groundbreaking.)
You could list off the type of readers who should dig into House Of Earth : Guthrie fans; scholars of the Dust Bowl era; folklorists; protesters against the sins of capitalism; believers in love … the list is endless.
The truth of the matter is, Woody Guthrie’s House Of Earth is a fine read for anyone with a soul and heart.
Brian Robbins has a virtual house of earth over at www.brian-robbins.com