House of Earth – literary fiction
Woody Guthrie – 1947/2013
Originally written around 1947 but not published until 2013, House of Earth is a novel I wasn’t aware of until about a month ago. Considering all Guthrie had written in his life, there was no reason for me to be surprised he had written a novel, but I was. My bad.
Guthrie, like most artists, paid attention not just to his own art but the art of others. When others created something he didn’t agree with, he often replied through his own art. Guthrie hated the pairing of religious exclusion and patriotism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” so he replied with “This Land Is Your Land,” in which he proclaims that the country is for everyone, not just religious folk. When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Guthrie wasn’t happy with the depiction of Oklahomans. He felt they didn’t seem “authentic” enough, especially in their dialogue. He wanted something better, so he answered with House of Earth.
Only two things really happen in House of Earth: First, Tike and Ella May Hamlin have sex. Then, nine months and several weeks later, Ella May gives birth. Mixed in are statements about how greedy bankers were ruining farming and the country in general. Unfortunately, these statements hold true for the current economic climate, but let’s not gloss over the sex.
It’s not a surprise that publishers balked at the book because of the graphically described sex. By today’s standards, of course, it’s not even something to blink at. In the 40’s, however, it would have been passed around in a plain brown wrapper. Though it’s graphic, it’s not pornographic. The description is both physiologically accurate and emotionally warm, and that’s something you’ll only get from poetry, not erotica.
The title refers to the strength of a house literally made from earth, adobe style, instead of wood, which is prone to weather, rot, termites, and rodents. Their wooden houses seem built to fail instead of built to last. Wind and rain blow through the wallboards and slowly rot the structure. An earthen building would stand up to wind and rain, reject termites and burrowing animals, and stand for generations instead of succumbing to the elements.
Tike receives a book of instructions from the federal farm board to build such a house. The story begins with Tike rejoicing over finally getting the booklet in the mail and looking forward to building their new home.
His happiness is strong enough for him to convince Ella May to take a break from the day’s work to sneak off into the barn to screw like horny teenagers. At the same time, they’re also a married couple sharing themselves adoringly. Tike leers and gropes at her like a lustful young man hungry for the girl next door while her parents are away. She mildly resists but then gives in. Though she knows there’s work to be done, she also knows that life is so disappointing for them that sex may be their only solace.
It’s unstated but clear that they are in no position to raise a baby. They’re barely feeding themselves and working the farm. Caring for a baby would obviously be a physical and financial mistake, but not a human mistake. They’re good people, the kind of people who should be having more kids while lesser people should be having fewer. I don’t mean in the story but in present-day America.
To avoid spoilers, let’s just say not everything goes as planned when it’s time for Ella May to actually give birth with the help of a midwife. There are complications, nothing life threatening, but complications that matter. The book closes with Tike singing a son to his new child. It’s a hopeful song, but nothing is hopeful unless current conditions are not well. Though the words are different, you’ll see the song is very similar to a Guthrie song you likely know.
House of Earth is not eventful, and I hesitate to call it a novel. It felt more like a novella to me. Actually, it felt more like poetry, a lengthy, haunting ballad that only Guthrie could write.