House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

House of Earth
House of Earth

By Woody Guthrie(HarperLuxe)

It is rare that the introduction is as interesting as the book it seeks to preface. But in the case of House of Earth, the foreword, written by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp, is a meal in itself.

House of Earth is a previously unpublished novel by the folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wandered the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Texas at the same time as John Steinbeck, in the 1930s. While Steinbeck took on the Okies, Guthrie went for the Texas Panhandle, the northern tip of the state beset by loose soil, tumbleweed, and a plague of termites.

Guthrie's story is of a husband and wife looking at the forlorn shack on rented land that is their home, and trying to figure out how to make their rickety existence more permanent. He took a decade to finish writing the novel, by which time the Second World War had intervened and America moved on. Brinkley and Depp believe he was also trying to interest Hollywood. But no film came to pass, and the manuscript languished until Depp, with his new publishing house, Infinitum Nihil, decided to revive it.

What may have put both Hollywood and publishers off is an extraordinary scene, spanning 30 pages, in which the gangly hero, Tike, gets his wife Ella Mae to put down the milk-churns and come over to the barn for a little lovin'. Their bodies, the juices that flow, the dark thoughts that struggle to find words: the honesty of the passage seems modern, even shocking. When they finally climax, Tike has to pick off the itchy dry straw from his tender privates, so dry is the land they call home.

Guthrie has a wider theme. Having surveyed the shacks sitting on the dirt, termite infested and creaking in the wind, Guthrie could not help but conclude that man should have more dignity in his basic shelter. He uses Tike as an evangelist to push a US government manual explaining how to build adobe huts, as they have in Mexico for thousands of years, and which have endured, keeping their inhabitants warm, protected and termite-free. Indeed, Tike and his wife even discuss adobe while making love, which briefly deadens the atmosphere for the reader.

But with Guthrie's ear for language and eye for human passions, House of Earth is an engaging and poetic story about struggle that still rings true today. Its revival is welcome.

The Independent on Sunday, 27 January 2013