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Book review: In Woody Guthrie's 'House of Earth,' this dream was his dream

House of Earth

by Woody Guthrie

Infinitum Nihil/HarperCollins, $25.99

Posted 8:17am on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013

House of Earth, by the great Woody Guthrie, is a novel about the lives and hard times of a Dust Bowl-era farm couple.

It's an entertaining but slight work in which very little actually happens.

There's also a fascinating behind-the-scenes story attached.

Guthrie -- the iconic American troubadour, a self-appointed champion of the little guy -- wrote the book in 1946 and '47. But then, curiously, he made no real effort to get it published.

After his death in 1967, the manuscript was "lost" among his massive archives of journals, song lyrics and letters, only to be discovered last year at the University of Tulsa (although curators there aren't sure exactly how and when they came into possession of it).

Then actor Johnny Depp, launching his own publishing imprint at HarperCollins, stepped in.

So more than 65 years after Guthrie completed House of Earth, the novel finally has seen the light of day as the first release from Depp's Infinitum Nihil line.

House of Earth is an engaging but odd tale about Texas Panhandle tenant farmer Tike Hamlin ("a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant") and his fiercely independent wife, Ella May.

They work their fingers to the bone on a 600-acre spread without ever really getting ahead. They live in a "flimsy rickety trap" of a wooden house that should have fallen down a decade ago. (As Ella puts it, "The good lord must be holding it up there on the south side with His right shoulder.")

But Tike, dreaming of a better life for himself, his wife and their little "grasshopper" on the way, has his mind set on building an adobe house that's impervious to wind, weather and creepy-crawlies.

He has a government-printed instruction manual that he purchased for 5 cents. This book becomes his Bible. Building this life-changing "earth house" becomes his obsession.

The only other desire inside Tike's uncomplicated brain is sex, sex, sex.

In fact, in the first chapter, in the midst of a lengthy and rather explicit lovemaking scene (which takes place in the barn), Tike and Ella's straw pillow talk is all about the merits of owning an adobe home.

This is also the main topic of discussion in the final chapter, when Ella is busy giving birth.

Why an adobe house?

As Depp and co-editor Douglas Brinkley explain in their introduction, Guthrie endured some of the most ferocious Dust Bowl conditions, including the "Black Sunday" storm that enveloped Pampa on April 14, 1935. It got so bad that day, residents believed the apocalypse was happening.

The following year, while the singer was "tramping" through New Mexico, where earth houses have stood for centuries, Guthrie became enamored with the notion that adobe could be the answer for poverty-stricken Dust Bowl/Depression-era people who were struggling to get by in rotting wood structures.

The problem, alas, was that these tenant farmers couldn't build on land they didn't own.

Like Tike, Guthrie even had his own prized 5-cent pamphlet: Bulletin No. 1720, titled Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Buildings. Adobe became one of his pet causes for years.

Still, House of Earth is a bit jarring and heavy-handed at times, the way Guthrie preaches the gospel of earth houses.

He has a poetic way with words. The scenes he conjures up have a dreamlike quality. But then he's repeatedly guilty of shattering that fragile reality with his personal agenda: adobe, adobe, adobe.

In their introduction, Depp and Brinkley go so far as to compare House of Earth to Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which chronicled the lives of Dust Bowlers who choose to leave.

In doing so, they're guilty of overstating the importance of House of Earth.

The book is a treasure and a pleasure for Guthrie enthusiasts, but it's hardly an American classic.

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