By Karl Dallas in Britain:
Tuesday 26 March 2013
Woody Guthrie was in love with words, obsessed by them.
They poured from his pen and his typewriter onto scraps of paper and pages and notebooks that have filled hundreds and thousands of boxes and filing cabinets that are still being mined for evidence that he was, and is, one of the great stylists of the American language – possibly the greatest since Walt Whitman.
This book, as far as we know – and who knows what riches still lie undiscovered in those scattered archives? – is his first and only novel. Though there were fictional elements in his two previous books, they were basically first-person memoirs, enriched but not belied by the extravagances of Guthrie’s imagination.
They were also edited and tidied up before publication by editors who felt they knew what made a good book better.
But though House Of Earth edited and with an introduction by actor Johnny Depp and the historian Douglas Brinkley, we get a stronger feeling for the unfettered richness of his creativity.
It tells the story of the struggle for survival of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, two dirt-poor sharecroppers in the Texas panhandle, who are inspired by a five-cent pamphlet distributed by Roosevelt’s New Deal government.
It gives instructions on how to build an adobe home, the “house of earth” of the book’s title, that will withstand the dustbowl winds better than their flimsy and ramshackle shanty.
But this is not just a practical solution to their residence on earth – it’s a way to tame the winds that are driving them from the land.
Ella May tells Tike how to do it, by running out into the dust storm and catching the dust in his hat: “Then you run over to the iron water tank and you stick the hat and all, dust storm and all, down under the water, and you hold it down there till it tames down and all of the wind and air goes out of it and it just turns into soil, dirt again.
“Then you go and you lay it down somewhere, anywhere you want to, and it will be your land. Your farm. Your ranch.”
When Tike agrees, she responds: “Will you, ohhh, will you really? Really? Will yooo? Ohhh. Deah. My deah. You don’t know, you just don’t know, you never will know, how it would thrill me, and fill me, and chill me and frill me and dill me and spill me and drill me and lil me and hill me and till me and bill me and jack me and jill me.
“You just don’t have any idea, any ideeeaa, my dyeahhh, to see you really do something, anything, anything, just so it was something, anything. Ohh. Ahhmm. Tikus. My little Mikus.”
You’ve just got to let such cadences wash over and through you, otherwise reading this book is hard work. There’s an audio version in which Will Patton’s voice carries them off rather well.
Much has been made by some of the more lubricious critics of the steamy sex and it’s true that it’s much more graphic than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact the sex provides some of the more poetic stretches but the odd quoted paragraph couldn’t give more than a taste of the glorious writing, which goes on literally for page after page.
Though it’s not really a political work like the Woody Sez columns Guthrie wrote for the US Daily Worker, the struggle for better things is always there, always implicit: “I wonder if it will ever come to an out-and-out fight,” says one character. “I sometimes hope so. I wish that the families of people that live in debt all of their lives in their trash-can houses would all get together and fight to get out of the miserable stink and mess.”
This is far from the sparse, laconic style of Woody’s singing balladry. But the book ends with a song – which could sing well to the tune of John Henry, the black steel-driving man – in which Ella May’s new-born child, whom she nicknames Grasshopper, triumphs over all adversity: “Well the Grasshopper says to that landlord/You can drive your tractor all around/You can plow, you can plant, you can take in your crop,/But you cain’t run my earth house down, down, down!/No! You cain’t run my earth house down!”
- House of Earth by Woody Guthrie: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Books: Woody Guthrie’s ‘lost novel’ (bostonglobe.com)
- Johnny Depp and Douglas Brinkley to Bring Woody Guthrie Back in Dust Bowl Book Publication (contactmusic.com)
- House of Earth (csmonitor.com)
- Woody Guthrie’s ‘House Of Earth’ Calls ‘This Land’ Home (npr.org)
- This Land is Our Land: Woody Guthrie’s Texas (bookpeopleblog.wordpress.com)
- Depp gives life to Guthrie’s long lost novel (goerie.com)
- House of Earth: Hear Woody Guthrie’s Lost Novel, Published by Johnny Depp, as an Audio Book (openculture.com)