Saturday, June 29, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: House of Earth by Woodie Guthrie

I’m a great admirer of Woody Guthrie. I say that and squirm a bit, because my knowledge of Woody Guthrie is actually very superficial. What I really am is a huge Arlo Guthrie fan. I know about Woody Guthrie because he was Arlo’s father. I know he was a famous folk singer of the Great Depression era known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." His best known song is This Land is Your Land, but he was a prolific writer of songs, poems and prose, supportive of the poor and downtrodden and crying out against the greed and corruption of society. And I know he died of complications of Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative illness.

So, when a novel was "discovered" in Woodie Guthrie’s papers, a novel completed in 1947 but never published until now, I was very curious to read it. The fact that it was edited and introduced by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp was also a selling point, though maybe I shouldn’t admit that. However, with the last page turned and the cover closed, I think perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the introduction by Brinkley and Depp.

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie is a rather soul-crushing tale of two good people, two realistically drawn, poverty-drenched young people eking out an existence in the Texas Panhandle in the dust bowl era. Tike and Ella May Hamlin are a young couple living in a falling down shack on a rented piece of farmland. Tike’s dream is to build an adobe house, a house made of earth, that will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer and that will last, unlike the rotting house of wood that doesn’t belong on the Panhandle. But since they don’t own the land, they don’t own the earth, and they can’t build on it. (They have to continue paying rent on the shack, even though it would be cheaper and more sensible to have a house of earth.)

Guthrie knows the subject well and it is something he feels very strongly about. He is able to paint the landscape vividly. He evokes a clear picture of the couple through the use of dialect that he obviously has an ear for. However, this book just didn’t hang together for me as a novel.

It opens with Tike sharing his dream of an earth house with Ella May and then it slides into a lengthy awkward sex scene. We barely know these people and we are listening to them baby talk and tease while the sex scene alternates between descriptions that are graphic and some that are possibly poetic but by then I was skimming because I didn’t want to be there with them. I don’t think it’s prudishness- this was just a scene that made me think ick- close the door.

The sex scene does finally end. The book then concentrates on the misery and unfairness in their lives, and the grinding hopelessness of it makes this a difficult read. This is Woody Guthrie’s soapbox. There is a lot of injustice in the world. The farmers are being cheated of their land by banks and landlords. Crops are failing. The rich are thriving but the poor are being beaten into the ground. Guthrie uses the inherently good Tike and Ella May as symbols of the downtrodden. The one thing they want is their own little piece of land to farm, their own little adobe house. It truly isn’t too much to ask. But it is completely out of reach.

So, at the risk of spoilers to the plot, Ella May has a baby. Tike, whose mind is constantly on sex, sexually harasses the nurse who is staying with them in order to take care of Ella and deliver the baby, but the nurse is able to fend him off. (The nurse, who is smarter than Tike, talks back to him and makes him look like an idiot.) Ella obsesses over a knot, a lump, in her breast that she has been noticing for months that is causing her a great deal of pain, but she won’t tell anyone about it. (I thought this was going to be a plot point that might go somewhere, but I was wrong.) And they all wish there was some way that they could get out of the rotting shack and bring up the baby in their dream house made of adobe, on a piece of their own land.

The book ends abruptly. Nothing is resolved, but of course, nothing could be resolved. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hopefulness and resilience of the couple, since they were not buoyed by hope. They were resilient, but that seemed to be more because there was nothing else to do but continue to slog on into the headwinds. I was left thinking that the dreams of this couple could not possibly come true, but it isn’t a book that is going to stick with me, or make me wonder if this or that plan could have worked, because there wasn’t any plan. It was something they wanted, something not unreasonable, but that they could never have, and that was that.

I suppose I was disappointed with House of Earth. I wanted a poignant novel with courageous characters I could love and empathize with as they battled odds to achieve goals. I guess I wanted a bit of a narrative arc to the story. This was a piece of Americana, a slice of life. I admired Ella May but I found Tyke annoying and a bit immature. It made for a realistic portrayal of the couple, but wasn’t exactly encouraging for the evolution of the marriage over the long haul. For now, their love sustains them, but when that’s gone too. . .

Overall, it was not so much a novel as it was a sounding board for Guthrie’s admiration for the idea of adobe houses. Read it as a period piece. Read it because you’re a Guthrie fan. Read it because his ideals resonate today as much as they did in the first half of the twentieth century. Read it because Guthrie is a poet with a gift for language. But I can’t really recommend it for its success as a novel.

This is my 17th book read for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

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