Novelist and short-story writer Rilla Askew converts a wandering troubadour-thief into an American icon in Harpsong, a bittersweet tale set during the Great Depression. Handsome half-breed Harlan Singer took to wandering early in life. Blessed with a musical ear, he uses his harmonica to charm his way into the good graces of those willing to give him a meal, a place to stay, and a little work. Coming upon an Oklahoma farm one day, he falls for a fourteen-year-old “possum-haired” girl, Sharon Thompson, who he steals away to marry. But the world is changing; bankers are foreclosing on farms, drought is destroying the land; factories and mines are shutting down. The ranks of the hobos riding the rails swells, and “bulls” are hired to beat them away. The couple struggles to survive in a world gone hungry and violent. Harlan’s music falters along with his hope. When Sharon discovers she’s pregnant, she insists they head back to her home, only to discover that “home,” as she knew it, no longer exists. She and Harlan must renegotiate what is sinful and what is survival, and accept the terrible consequences of their actions.
Steinbeck had his Joads—the Oklahoma dustbowl farmers who moved to California in search of a better life. In Harpsong, Rilla Askew has written the other side of the tale, showing with heartbreaking tenderness the fate of the poor souls left behind.