It is a strange pleasure, spiced with embarrassment, when something exceeds its expectations. Hearing about a “rediscovered” novel by American music legend Woody Guthrie, a reader might be forgiven for anticipating nothing more than a quaint and charming artifact. When the book instead turns out to be a fully realized piece of very American literature, it’s an instant lesson in humility. The book, “House of Earth,” is an artifact, of course, but so is any buried treasure.
Guthrie wrote “House of Earth”in Brooklyn in 1947, but the novel’s idea took hold 10 years earlier, in Pampas, Texas, where dust storms and harsh winters were destroying the health and houses of the people who lived there. Guthrie had gotten some Department of Agriculture pamphlets on how to build homes from adobe, and the idea fired his imagination. What it meant to Guthrie, as he illustrated with his main characters, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, was that people who lived on the land they worked could have a home that didn’t blow away, let in the dirt, or freeze them out in the surprisingly cold winters on Texas’ plains. It wasn’t just building material, in other words — it was dignity in brick form.
Tike and Ella May — who deserve this dignity — are two of this novel’s surprises. Yes, they are noble archetypes, but they are also intensely specific individuals. They both talk like Guthrie, of course, which is to say, poetically, wittily and at length. They also have a hot sex life, another of the book’s unexpected delights. While every generation thinks it invented sex, it’s still startling to find a 20-page sex scene in the middle of a book by the creator of “This Land Is Your Land.”
These protagonists want an adobe house because their wooden shack is falling down and filthy. As Ella May cries in frustration: “I tried to tack the screen … to keep those old biting flies out, and they just kept coming … because the wood was so rotten the tacks fell out in less than twenty minutes.” That’s Guthrie’s practical, observant eye at work, but he’s also a lyrical poet whose every sentence contains a list. Ella May has not just a quiver, but a “quiver, a tremble and a shake in her body as she scraped her shoe’s sole against the ground.”
Ella rails against the injustice of their lives with all the gathering momentum of a thunderstorm: “Why is this country full of things you can’t see that beat you down, kick you down, throw you around and kill out your hope?,” but Guthrie always brings the narrative back to earth with a finely observed detail. The landscape and cap-rock escarpments around Pampas are vividly drawn and sometimes even frightening. “The Cap is that big high crooked cliff of limestone, sandrock marble and flint … canyons … sandy creek beds and gullies form the testing grounds of leather-winged bats, drying grounds of monster-size bones and teeth.”
Tike and Ella May have the land, and its owners, working against them — but even then Guthrie can’t help but describe the land as remarkable. Just as remarkable is the sound Guthrie’s prose conjures up. It’s a sound that started with Walt Whitman and itinerant preachers and barkers, people who conjured up momentum with words. Guthrie’s descriptions of Texas echo Nelson Algren’s words on Chicago and anticipate Jack Kerouac on whatever windows and grocery stores he happened to be passing at the moment. “House of Earth” is well constructed, like a good song or house should be, but it’s also a bit flawed and unruly, exactly the way American literature has always been.
Emily Carter is a writer in Connecticut and the author of “Glory Goes and Gets Some,” published by Coffee House Press.