This article first appeared in The July, 2013 edition of The Tulsa Book Review.
Woody Guthrie’s cultural significance is difficult to overstate. The dynamism of his musical persona works on many different levels. As a folk musician his influence is extolled by devotees with names like Dylan and Springsteen and Mellencamp. He advocated for a collectivism that lives on with contemporary acts such as The Arcade Fire and folk revivalists. He sang children’s songs. He epitomized the traveling minstrel, evoking the spirit of wayward troubadours. He eschewed commercial success and championed a populist devotion, exalting and worshipping at the altar of the workaday man. Now, with a posthumous novel, readers and fans alike can marvel at his distinctively humble yet intimate prose. Rhythmic, with a talent for vernacular, Guthrie proves his writing prowess extends beyond songcraft.
House of Earth follows Tike and Ella May for a year on their rented farm. The first half finds the couple worrying about their future, the second focuses on the birth of their first child. Like characters out of a Guthrie ballad, this is a hardscrabble couple, earning a meek living farming rented land. Tike is an ornery sort, prone to scatalogical missives, Ella May the headstrong wife. But love alone a home does not make. Their humble abode is rotting from the inside out, dust floats down from the ceiling when a door is shut, jambs and frames cannot hold nails for the rotting, spongy wood. Their meek belongings, used and filthy, are filled with holes or serve as homes to creepy crawlies. But Tike has a plan. With the help of a government brochure, Tike aims to build an adobe house, a house made of sod bricks that can withstand the High Plains’ ceaseless dry winds, keep out the swirling blowing earth, and provide the clean home his loving, doting wife deserves. Weatherproofing aside, the ‘earth house’ symbolizes something much brighter for the couple. It represents hope. The hope of escaping the shame of sharecropping, beholden to a wealthy landowner. The hope of achieving independence through honest work, finding dignity in owning and working one’s piece of the pie.
With a fairly anemic plot, Gurthrie chooses to concentrate on scenery, devoting long sections to describing the poverty of our main characters. Though they are poor, they are capable and determined to eke out a simple existence living in harmony with the land. House of Earth is heavy on ethos. Tike and Ella May are pure of heart, fighting the good fight against greedy banks and an immoral landowner. That said, the protagonists adhere closer to a rural populism than the overtly incendiary labor class/proletariat issues found in Guthrie’s ballads. It won’t be a surprise to Guthrie’s fans that his fiction parades the same restless playfulness as many of his songs. Nor should it that the same playfulness is imbued with paranoia and dread, fearing for the plight of the common working man.
Stylistically, readers are treated to the balladeer’s pleasantly rhythmic prose, many passages are almost musical in cadence. Guthrie’s narrative range is well honed. Heavy on local flavor, Guthrie’s High Plains couple speak in a thick twang, apostrophes standing in for consonants. Unlike fellow dust bowl scribe Steinbeck, Guthrie adorns the narrative with unexpectedly flowery and vivid prose. And when Guthrie experiments with stream of conscious and Catalague Poetry-type passages readers observe a stylistic link between the folk figurehead and his Beat movement acolytes, aside from the more explicit philosophic kinship.
Extended sections of frank sexuality will surely raise eyebrows. When the couple make love on the ground, literally rolling in the hay, Guthrie savors every minute, every visceral detail of man’s union with wife. Although the curtains are parted allowing the reader to see all, Guthrie is tender and scrupulous, neither mismanaging the lovemaking scene nor treating it brusquely. Even with a heavy handed fertility metaphor, it is interesting to see Guthrie infuse a lovemaking scene with a political subtext. Falling somewhere between the eroticism of D.H. Lawrence and a treatise on reclaiming and asserting one’s body, the scene is at once sexy and politically charged.
Much of what we get from Woody Guthrie’s novel is what we’ve come to expect from the folk hero: the motif of simple working poor individuals living in close contact with the unforgiving land. What we also get is another reason to celebrate this American icon. Through deft prose, Guthrie has proved his talent boundless. Readers will rejoice in this remarkable love story, parable of determinism, and our explicable bond with the earth.