House of Earth
“Life’s pretty tough—you’re lucky if you live through it.” This quote from Woody Guthrie sums up the outlook of the characters in House of Earth, Guthrie’s sole piece of major fiction in a long career of writing music and lyrics. Unlike Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, this book is about the “stubborn dirt farmers” who stayed in the Great Plains because they loved it too much to leave.
The opening lines are hauntingly musical: “The wind of the upper flat plains sung a high lonesome song down across the blades of the dry iron grass.” It is the song and the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who live in the Texas Panhandle as tenant farmers, struggling to live and living with the hope and dream of actually owning their own land someday, and with it, a house. Not just some wooden house, food for termites and easily despoiled by wind and rain, but a “house of earth”—made of adobe.
Tike and Ella May are rough, straightforward folk, and it’s easy to like them. Guthrie had an excellent ear for capturing the vernacular, rendering the phrases of a culture as well as the thoughts and feelings behind the words. Some twenty pages into the novel is one of the most sensual and astonishing descriptions of two people making love that I have ever read; it’s completely unexpected; it’s tender and crude; it’s pragmatic and yet overwhelmingly romantic. The scene is some twenty pages in length, and is worth the price of the book all by itself. But there’s more to read, more heartbreak to experience, more joy to feel, and more Woody Guthrie to listen to in the rest of the story. Very highly recommended.