House of Earth

  • Woody Guthrie
  • Harper
  • 288 pp.

In this newly unearthed 1947 novel by folk music icon Woody Guthrie, a husband and wife struggle to build a life in the bleak Texas panhandle.

What do you get when a star of Hollywood and a star of academia join to promote a newly discovered 1947 novel by an icon of folk music? You get a period piece by Woody Guthrie earnestly expounding his political philosophy but lacking the appeal of his songs. You also get a four-section, 34-page introduction byJohnny Depp (of Hollywood) and Douglas Brinkley (of academia) heaping praise on the book, and a bibliography, discography, acknowledgements and biographical time line to conclude it. With all that weighing on the reader, it’s a bit scary not to join the chorus of kudos.

Guthrie had the soul of a poet and a political philosophy that would make the Tea Party take to gin. Always a very keen observer of nature and of interactions between people, the writer who gave us “This Land Is Your Land” is capable of lyrical description of the land that he clearly loves. In his novel, as in his songs, he is harshly critical of a society that permits the rich to get richer while the poor struggle to survive.  

The book is set in the Texas panhandle, on a small farm rented by Tike and Ella Mae Hamlin. They are housed in a wooden shack that they have to wallpaper with old newspapers in order to keep the wind out of the cracks. Tike dreams of building a sod house, a house of earth that would survive the harsh weather and cost very little, according to a pamphlet from the Department of Agriculture. He bemoans his inability to provide more for his wife. Ella Mae has severed her relationship with her well-to-do but controlling father, and she is sick of hearing Tike fret about how he has brought her down in the world.  

The couple has a companionable marriage, helping one another with chores. They also have a fierce physical attraction to each other.  In an astonishing 20-page scene, Guthrie describes them making love in the barn. Their actions and reactions are presented in detail as well as their conversation and thoughts which range from baby-talk endearments to the unfairness of absentee landlords and the building of an adobe house. This earnestness about the rights and wrongs of the world and how things could be better pervades the novel, from meditations on the specific virtues of an earthen house to the policies of the national government.  

Unfortunately, preaching all too often dominates House of Earth. Descriptions of the landscape are at times wonderful, but at other times go over the top into purple prose. Occasionally language switches awkwardly between literary and dialect. The editors, who might have been able to improve the book by challenging a living author to rewrite some material, have had to be duly respectful of the work of one who can’t respond. 

House of Earth does not really have a plot, but offers a slice of life, following Tike and Ella Mae for about one year. In addition to material giving the background of the two major characters, and the descriptions of the landscape and weather — which could almost be considered characters as well — there are very few scenes in the book. Only one other character makes an appearance at any length, providing another view of Tike and Ella Mae and their circumstances.

Apparently, Guthrie had hoped to have the novel made into a movie. Certainly both its graphic sex and its politics precluded publication or filming in 1947 or during the following decade — the post-World War II Cold War era when anything leftist was suspect, and more than 10 years before the judicial decisions legalizing publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other books describing sex.

Woody Guthrie’s voice was an authentic and notable one of his era. His music lives on because of its timeless appeal. His songs for young children are still one of the best presents new parents could receive. His autobiography, Bound for Glory, abounds with verve and humor and keen observation. If you are not familiar with Woody Guthrie, start with his music, then read Bound for Glory. If you are a Woody Guthrie fan, House of Earth is for you. Guthrie is always original and inventive. Even in a novel that has its faults, there is enough here to make it worth the read.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs and has edited all sorts of books from college texts to spy thrillers.


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