Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Woody Guthrie – House of Earth: A Novel [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0062248391″ locale=”us” height=”333” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51tvyIegJEL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Woody Guthrie” ]Guthrie’s Ghost

A Review of

House of Earth: A Novel

Woody Guthrie

Edited by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp
Hardback: Harper, 2013.
Buy now: [ [easyazon-link asin=”0062248391″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ] [ [easyazon-link asin=”B008QY1JC0″ locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]


Reviewed by Brett Beasley.


On January 29, 1961 a 19-year-old aspiring folk singer travelled from Minnesota to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey to meet the man he most admired who was suffering from the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease. After their meeting the older man sent his young admirer a card. It read, simply, “I ain’t dead yet.” Whether it was meant as a sly joke or a heroic declaration, this statement proved to be strangely prophetic. The following year the young man released his debut self-titled album, Bob Dylan, which included “A Song to Woody”. Dylan’s subsequent career—like those of Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy, and countless others—would go on to cement Guthrie’s place in America’s national consciousness.


Guthrie’s body of work even continues to live a life of its own as Guthrie’s friends, fans, and family members discover new additions to his vast treasure trove of unpublished writings and unrecorded songs. A notable example is the three-volume set by Billy Bragg and Wilco entitled Mermaid Avenue,which set scores of previously unheard Guthrie lyrics to music. But the biggest surprise of all came last year at the time of Guthrie’s centennial when the scholar Douglas Brinkley and the actor Johnny Depp announced that they were editing Guthrie’s long lost novel House of Earth for publication.


Like the ballads that made him famous, Guthrie’s novel takes us on a simple journey with profound results. The basic elements of the story are quite spare: it offers a narrow window into two days one year apart in the lives of a husband, Tike Hamlin, and his pregnant wife Ella May living as sharecroppers in a rickety shack in the Texas panhandle. They, together with a nurse who comes to help with Ella May’s delivery, are the novel’s only characters, and their shack forms its principal setting. On the surface Tike Hamlin and Ella May appear plainer than the dust that seeps in through the cracks of their disheveled house, giving the world we see through their eyes a minute and almost claustrophobic feeling. Their dialect (“’S come! Come! Looky! Hey! Elly Mayyy!” “Somethin’ I got to tell,” “Shore cain’t”) is even tiresome at first. But as the story unfolds their apparently dull exterior gives way to hidden depths. In this scene, for example, Tike listens to the sound of a cream-separating machine while he stews with anger:


The steady buzz of the hum of the machine bathed his feelings in the sweetest of waters, set up an orchestra in the halls of his soul, and his creative mind drove a dozen tractors and pulled a thousand plows as he hardened his muscles, and squeezed the wood handle of the crank. The hum was born as a yowling baby in the wheels and the cogs of the machine, and he saw it grow up larger and louder, as large as the whole room and as loud as, then a good bit louder than, the voices of Blanche and Ella May. His face was a sweet bitter mean smile.


As it tells of Tike and Ella May’s inner lives, Guthrie’s prose opens up into sweeping sentences as if displaying the vault of a massive cave beneath a humble limestone edifice. Tike expresses his anger outwardly with a mere facial expression—the “sweet bitter mean smile”—but the reader witnesses the profundity that lies beneath it.


Tike and Ella’s depth of character amplifies as they begin to take on a broad moral and spiritual vision. Under the stress of labor pains Ella has a transcendental experience that conveys the following message:


The people are all born from one and they are really all one…This is the greatest one single truth of life and takes in all other books of knowing…And there are a few people that work to hurt, to hold down, to deny, to take from, to cheat, the rest of us. And these few are the thieves of the body, the germs of the disease of greed, they are few but they are loud and strong and your baby must be born well to help kill these few out.


Ella May’s mystical episode holds an important key to the novel’s vision of justice. While Guthrie was convinced that “pastures of plenty”—to borrow one of his song titles—await the poor and downtrodden, he was also realistic about the long, intense struggle that marks the road to justice.


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