Book Review from the June 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
House of Earth, by Woody Guthrie. Harper Collins, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-06-224839-8.
Guthrie, America's famous working-class troubadour, who died in 1967, presents in this novel, completed in 1947, a realistic picture of a couple struggling to survive in the Texas Panhandle during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Tike and Ella May Hamlin feel frustrated with the inadequacies of their wooden shack and naturally yearn for something better. Tike buys a DIY government pamphlet on adobe houses made from the earth itself. Because it would be warm in winter, cool in summer, wind-proof, fire-proof and more importantly, dust-proof, Tike decides to make one himself. Since the Hamlins don't own the land they live on, Tike's efforts inevitably bring them into conflict with the powers-that-be.
What is clearly obvious is the extent to which Guthrie was influenced by the eroticism of D.H. Lawrence (in fact, most of the first quarter of the book is about the Hamlins having sex), and the social realism of his friend, John Steinbeck.
This reviewer would certainly recommend the book, but primarily because of the 34-page introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp, which contains an excellent description of the Dust Bowl and its effects. They destroy the myth that soil erosion was caused by the poor farmers not replenishing it: ‘. . . it's that those with power, especially Big Banks, Big Lumber, Big Agriculture, should be chastised as repugnant robber barons and rejected by wage earners.’
Brinkley and Depp mention several interesting tit-bits, such as the social activism of actor Eddie Albert, a friend of Guthrie's and that, when he wrote ‘This Land is Your Land,’ it was a rebuttal to ‘God Bless America.’ They contend that Guthrie could not get this book published at its completion in 1947, owing to the political climate of the times, which they called ‘Trumanism’ and that the book had been largely forgotten during the intervening years.
It is to be regretted that Guthrie was enamoured of the so-called Communist Party and that some of his work was patriotic. In ‘The Big Grand Coulee Dam,’ he wrote, ‘Now roars a flying fortress, for to fight for Uncle Sam.’
However, in his introduction he hits the nail on the head, ‘Life's pretty tough . . . you're lucky if you live through it.’