Thursday, April 4, 2013

House of Earth, by Woody Guthrie

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Woody Guthrie's long lost novel, House of Earth, describes the hardships endured in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It is striking for its authentic dialogue and gritty realism, its psychological intensity and raw emotional power.

Woody Guthrie, the famous protest singer-songwriter, wrote songs about the hardships and injustices of the American Dust Bowl. In 1947, he completed his one and only novel, House of Earth. He typed up the manuscript and posted it to filmmaker Irving Lerner, hoping to have it produced. Lerner declined, and the novel languished. When Lerner died and his estate was being sorted out, the typescript came to light. Enter Johnny Depp and Douglas Brinkley. As they were researching a project on Bob Dylan last year, in 2012, they came across the long forgotten novel. House of Earth was published in 2013 under Depp’s imprint Infinitum Nihil.

The blurb on the dust jacked describes House of Earth as a mix between John Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence, and with this it’s hard to disagree. There is an earthy mix of sex, nature, land and reproduction which is mixed with social realism, politics and the harshness of the depression. The personal and the political are tightly bound in this intensetly intimate tale of a couple struggling against harsh natural conditions and a deeply exploitative economic system.

The novel tells the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin. They live in a flimsy wooden house that can barely hold against the wind, the rain and of course the dust storms. Tike buys a 5 cent government pamphlet which gives instructions on how to build a house made out of adobe – a solid material made of earth. (In the introduction we learn that this was an idea that would obsess Guthrie in real life.) If the couple could only build a house made of adobe, they would be protected from so much of life’s troubles. A house made out of adobe, earth, represents security and safety.

The couple conceive a child in the first chapter’s long sex scene (you can barely imagine this being published in 1947), or this is when the reader presumes the conception takes place. During this detailed sex scene Guthrie intersperses a lot of dialogue, with Tike and Ella May discussing everything from politics to economics. The last of the four chapters is devoted to an incredibly detailed birth scene.

At heart this novel has a very static feeling, with storms of trouble and nature swirling around the two fragile main characters, trying to make a life for themselves and their new born child. I found myself constantly wondering how they would get on once the novel ended – surely a testament to the authenticity of Guthrie’s characters. Much of TIke and Ella May’s dialogue (not to mention Blanche, the nurse) is so uncanny and idiosyncratic that it’s obviously copied from real life. House of Earth gives an intimate view into the world of those who struggled as farmers and workers in the American Dust Bowl. Not only of their outward circumstances, but also their inner thoughts, hopes and dreams.

House of Earth could have ended up being just another literary curio, but it has real power and resonance. It doubles as a devastating document of the times and a showcase of Guthrie’s artistry, his ear for dialogue and skill at distilling sex, politics and nature into a style that is part stream-of-consciousness, part natural realism.

House of Earth, by Woody Guthrie. Published by Fourth Estate. ISBN: 9780007509850  RRP: $22.99