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5.0 2
by Rilla Askew

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A love story about Dust Bowl heroes who didn’t leave for California

Harlan Singer, a harmonica-playing troubadour, shows up in the Thompson family’s yard one morning. He steals their hearts with his music, and their daughter with his charm. Soon he and his fourteen-year-old bride, Sharon, are on the road, two more hobos of the Great Depression,


A love story about Dust Bowl heroes who didn’t leave for California

Harlan Singer, a harmonica-playing troubadour, shows up in the Thompson family’s yard one morning. He steals their hearts with his music, and their daughter with his charm. Soon he and his fourteen-year-old bride, Sharon, are on the road, two more hobos of the Great Depression, hitchhiking and hopping freights across the Great Plains in search of an old man and the settlement of Harlan’s long-standing debt.

Finding shelter in hobo jungles and Hoovervilles, the newlyweds careen across the 1930s landscape in a giant figure eight with Oklahoma in the middle. Sharon’s growing doubts about her husband’s quest set in motion events that turn Harlan Singer into a hero while blinding her to the dark secret of his journey. A love story infused with history and folk tradition, Harpsong shows what happened to the friends and neighbors Steinbeck’s Joads left behind.

In this moving, redemptive tale inspired by Oklahoma folk heroes, Rilla Askew continues her exploration of the American story. Harpsong is a novel of love and loss, of adventure and renewal, and of a wayfaring orphan’s search for home—all set to the sounds of Harlan’s harmonica. It shows us the strength and resilience of a people who, in the face of unending despair, maintain their faith in the land.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

American Book Award-winning author Askew (creative writing, Univ. of Oklahoma; Fire in Beulah) mixes fiction with legend and history in this extraordinary novel of Oklahoma during the Great Depression, Volume 1 of the "Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers" series. Harmonica-playing Harlan Singer marries 14-year-old Sharon Thompson, and they immediately take to riding the rails. Unlike many Okies, however, they never go to California but instead keep making figure eights, always returning to their center point, Oklahoma. The charismatic Harlan—a brilliant musician and storyteller with friends among the hobos, Cherokees, and African Americans—has taken Sharon along on his own mysterious quest. Sometimes they steal, but only needed food and clothing, and they always try to repay their debts. Throughout, Askew interweaves three narrative strands: Sharon's voice; Harlan's poetry, or "deepsong"; and "folksay," the legends and history surrounding these two. The result is a vivid portrait of an age and a place, of desperate poverty, near starvation, red dust, and strong biblical faith. Regional literature at its finest; highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—Mary Margaret Benson

Kirkus Reviews
A young man, his teenaged wife and his harmonica crisscross the Depression-era Southwest in Askew's mournful, compelling, religion-infused third novel. Sharon Thompson may be only 14, but as soon as mysterious stranger Harlan Singer appears in her small town of Cookson, Okla., she knows they are destined to mate. The self-named Harlan may be part Cherokee, but what's for sure is his genius with the harmonica, or harp-he's a veritable Pied Piper. He so charms Sharon's dirt-poor parents (her Daddy is a traveling preacher) that they give him work. But work doesn't agree with Harlan. After an almighty ruckus, Harlan whisks Sharon away to Muskogee, where they marry; they honeymoon atop a freight car, for Harlan has been riding the rails for years; Sharon, "ignorant as pudding," realizes she doesn't know her husband at all. Still, she shows spirit as they navigate the hobo jungles and run from the bulls, i.e., railroad detectives. Harlan is searching for Profit, his spiritual mentor, a smelly old hobo who once saved his life, but his search is as hopeless as Sharon's for her family, since on their return to Cookson, her home is deserted; bank foreclosures have doomed the town. The past is unrecoverable; that is one of the novel's themes, along with responsibility to our fellow man, also addressed in Askew's Fire in Beulah (2001). Harlan, as retribution, robs the local bank and becomes the stuff of legend, though he later returns the money, for he and Sharon are religious folks, caught in a cycle of sin and the quest for redemption. Askew skillfully weaves their personal dramas (a miscarriage, Harlan's fearsome beating by the bulls) with the communal hardships of the Depression; through it allfloats the sound of Harlan's harmonica, mesmerizing his listeners. Only toward the end does Askew's control falter, when a stormy courthouse occupation by miners' families detracts from the young couple's ever-changing relationship. A memorable portrait of a bizarre but credible marriage teetering between hope and despair.
From the Publisher

“Set in Depression-era Oklahoma and drawing inevitable comparison to The Grapes of Wrath, Askew's novel presents the best and worst of humanity in its depiction of hardscrabble lives lived during the Dust Bowl. Askew's command of language is a pleasure to behold, bringing out the pain and wonder of her story with a bittersweet immediacy.” —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Stories and Storytellers Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Rilla Askew


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8421-0




Folks say he was born the same year the state was, 1907, but you won't find a public record to prove that, or deny it. Some say he was first cousin to Tom Joad and second-cousin-once-removed to Pretty Boy Floyd's family in Sallisaw—except the Joads weren't real Okies, they were a made-up clan, and it is certain that the Floyds never claimed him. You'll even hear it told from time to time that he was kin to our most famous favorite son, Will Rogers, but that's just a tall tale. To be honest, the Oklahoma son Harlan Singer favored most was the one from Okemah, but we disowned that Okemah boy on account of he was a communist they say, and anyhow, Singer had vanished in the hills by the time Woody Guthrie began to make a reputation.

Some people believe he grew up in the coal mining district, on account of what happened later at McAlester, but the fact of the matter is, Harlan Singer came from the Cherokee hill country, and to this day, depending on how far back in the bo-jacks you go, you'll hear all kind of stories: his mama was an antlered doe with a scream like a Cooper's hawk. He was whelped by a she-wolf and weaned on panther milk. He could walk across the Verdigris in seven steps, limber as a cottonmouth, loud as a crow, he gobbled his deathsong a dozen times and lived a dozen and one times to sing about it. Some say he was a descendent of old-time Cherokee outlaws, Ned Christie or Henry Starr, but the folks around Sallisaw will tell you very well that his mama was a lunatic white woman who went by the name Jones.

She arrived in town on the Kansas City Southern in 1909, and folks figured she'd come from somewhere up north, or east across the border. The boy was a knee-baby then, not quite able to talk, dark all over as his mama was light, and she carried him with her while she roamed the muddy streets in her widow-weeds, trailing a long black veil, though the town believed in its soul she'd never once been married. She said things a woman ought never say out-loud, such as the boy had been conceived in her virginity. She began to take him with her, walking or getting wagon rides, deep into the hills where none but the old fullbloods lived, and so we knew she hadn't come from elsewhere at all, and everybody knew why the boy was dark, and we believed we understood his lineage. She would stay gone a week or a month, but she always came back, living hand-to-mouth on the charity of the town, though it irked people that she didn't somehow seem to know it. And then, after years, she got to speaking in tongues, not just at church but anywhere she went. At first we thought she was talking Cherokee, and then we knew she wasn't. So folks wrote up a petition for the sheriff to put her on a train and ride her to Vinita and lock her in the crazy house, but he never got the chance. She set the boy on the Church of Christ steps one morning and went up towards Tahlequah, and before anybody knew it she'd jumped off a bluff into the Illinois. The river didn't turn her loose for seven days, till she rolled up on a sandbar somewhere below Cookson. That was when the boy was nine.

He lit out to the hills the same day they laid his mama's blue body in a pauper's grave, and he roamed from Baron Fork to Webbers Falls, Wild Horse Mountain to Sparrow Hawk, and all through the Brushy Mountains. After a while he disappeared from people's minds. We thought he'd gone to live with the fullbloods around Marble City, until certain things began to come up missing, such as eggs from the henhouse and milk from the porch, pies in a window, shirts from the line. He'd learned to thieve from being on his own they say, but it was just to keep his young self alive, and sometimes you'd find a wildflower in that thieved egg's place, or a bunch of hickory nuts, or a hollowed out gourd—useless things, but he was trying to pay his way. And then he got religion at a brush arbor meeting near Muldrow one August, and the boy quit his thieving.

He came in from the hills and stayed in the old shack in back of Reverend Letbetter's house, and we gave him the same charity we'd given his mother, though he didn't seem to know it any better than she did. We called him Willie Jones, and sometimes for a joke, and because he was so small, Wee Willie Jonesy. He took to hanging around the Sallisaw barber shop, he'd sweep the floor, run errands for a penny or a dime, whatever somebody might give him. He was an eager boy, pretty as a girl, with black curly hair and skin that was the wrong color to match his eyes, but people tolerated him. He was quick and amiable and he learned to play a Jew's harp and a comb with a cigarette paper on it, until somebody gave him a harmonica—a French harp we called it, or mouth harp, but a twenty-five-cent harmonica is what it was—and that's when he began to correct people about his name. No, ma'am, he'd say. No, sir, that's not my name. My name is Harlan Singer.

He'd blow his harp in front of the Rexall Drug with his cap turned upside down on the walk, and if he wore his grin a little too cocky to suit and if he jig-danced a little too wild, well, we forgave that, on account of we knew his history. If we had a loose nickel we'd be sure to toss it in, to see if he would come up with a new song. Some folks said he went down into colored town to learn his songs, but others said he was awful clever on that harp, he might could have made them up himself. And then about the time he got good and grown and sharp enough to start showing something for himself, he turned up gone.

Well, we didn't think much about it. We had other worries on our mind. Banks were failing, crops were lost, there was heat and drought and plagues of berry blight, boll weevils in the fields, walkingsticks on the walls, and nobody had any money. By the time we came to know anything about him again it was 1932 and the whole country was in a mighty trouble. That's when folks began to come to town swearing they'd seen Willie Jones in Muskogee or Tahlequah or Paradise Hill. He showed up in the town of Vardis one sweltery July morn, limping along Main Street with a little possum-haired gal in tow, the both of them swallered in clothes too big to be right and the gal wearing britches to boot, and he proceeded to set her to wait in front of the mercantile while he went across the street and robbed the Farmers Bank, and all he used, the people say, was a smile and a feedsack and a very polite note, and a six-gun pointed toward the ceiling. Later we heard that gun didn't have any bullets. Folks cheered when he stepped out of the bank tossing paper dollars by the handfuls in the dusty dirt. We'd come to expect that, on account of that's how Pretty Boy Floyd had always done, or so we'd heard, though Pretty Boy never did hit the bank at Vardis. But Harlan Singer surely did, and by Christmas that year he had a name far and wide, in our part of the country anyway, and nobody could remember him ever being called anything but Singer.

So the people thought he was going to copy himself after some of our more famous bank robbers. The same folks who believed he'd got his songs from colored town were the very ones declaring up and down that we had ourselves a new-minted copycat Pretty Boy. Folks predicted Singer would turn up in Red Oak—that was an easy bank to rob—or Earlsboro, where the oil money still was, or Kinta or Quinton or Crowder.

One morning a little boy in new overalls showed up in Vardis toting a brown parcel tied around with string, addressed to Mr. Oliver Teasley, Sole Owner and Proprietor of the First Farmers & Merchants State Bank of Vardis, Oklahoma. Mr. Teasley took one look at that box and blanched pale as a toad-belly. He made the boy carry it outside and set it in the middle of Main Street, and then Mr. Teasley, who wielded considerable power in the town, had the mayor stop all the passing traffic, and then he went back in the bank and got inside the vault while the mayor fired his double-barreled shotgun from a hundred paces at that paper-wrapped box. The box didn't do anything. The mayor reloaded and blasted it again. The box hopped around every time the mayor blasted it, but then it would just settle down and sit still, mocking everybody. We watched it an hour or two, hoping it would blow up or do something interesting, but along towards noon Mayor Mayfield, who hated being made a fool, stomped right out in the street and tore the shredded butcher paper off.

Inside, in a tattered, shot-riddled tin box, was most of the money Harlan Singer had taken in the first place from Mr. Teasley's bank—what amount, that is, folks hadn't stuffed in their pockets between the time Singer flung it out of the sack and Teasley finally got up the nerve to come chasing outside in his suspenders hollering for somebody to catch the long-gone robber. Of course, those greenbacks were shot all to pieces now and weren't fit to be of use to anybody, and when the mayor went to look for the little boy, he was gone, and nobody could remember seeing him before that day or since, but the point is, Harlan Singer gave back the money. So then we knew he still had his religion. That kindly surprised us.

People said, Well, he aims to rob from the rich and give to the poor. That's how our folk heroes have always done, and that's also what Jesus taught, idn't it? More or less? Singer don't intend to make a career of robbing small town banks, we said. Too many working folks' money sits in the little town banks. He'll go right out in bright daylight and rob a big city bank, a rich man's bank, an oil-company or a government or a utilities-type bank—that's how you rob from the rich to give to the poor, and that's what Harlan Singer aims to do. He'll be doing it here any day now. Just watch him.



That's me and him standing at the side of the road outside Joplin, Missouri. To look at it you wouldn't know where it was, would you? Dirt road, bare trees, it could be anywhere, Arkansas or Mississippi, these Oklahoma hills even, where we came from. You wouldn't know what year either, but I can tell you. 1935. I believe it was March maybe. The trees were just fixing to bud. The lady that took it posed us to look like that, like we were hitchhiking, which we weren't, though we did do a lot of hitching. We rode the rails too, especially at first. That valise in the dirt wasn't ours. Me and Harlan used a rucksack. The lady drove us in her car to that spot and got that valise out of her turtlehull and set it on the ground between us before she took the picture. It's the only picture ever taken of me and Harlan, so far as I know.

I didn't know about that one, or I didn't know it was a public picture, till I ran across it in a postcard rack in Tahlequah way up after the end of the war. I about fainted. I felt like I was watching an old dream come alive in front of my face. I bought it so quick, like somebody might snatch it, but for the life of me I couldn't recollect when it was taken. My hat there's what caused me to finally remember. I'd found that cloth hat in a bar ditch near Joplin and lost it to the wind outside McAlester, so I knew right when the picture had to have been taken, and then I remembered the lady.

She came and picked us out of all the other folks camped under that railroad overpass, she walked right past women and their little kids and men with sores on their feet, which, if she meant to be taking pictures of poor people, like she said, you'd think she might have picked one of them. We were sitting in the shade underneath a girder, Harlan wasn't playing his harp or anything, but that lady made a beeline right for us, and really, I don't know why, unless it was just because my husband was so pretty. He didn't like anybody to say it, of course, he acted like that was such an embarrassment, but you'd seldom catch him smiling with his mouth open to show where his tooth was broke. See it there? She caught him with his lips open. You can't tell if he's grinning or squinting, but Harlan kept his lips shut tight over that chipped tooth most the time, except when he was singing or talking.

I cherish this picture anyway, even if it does feel like the lady stole it. Shedidn't really, I guess. She told us what she was doing, and we stood right there, still as still, while she took our picture with a big black box camera. It wasn't like she snuck around. She drove us back to the camp after and dropped us off, we never saw or heard from her again. Come to find out, she put that picture in a book along with a bunch of others. I didn't know you could do that, take somebody's picture and put it in a book or on a postcard and never ask them. But she paid us two dollars and a half, or she didn't call it pay, she just gave it to us, said, "Here, get y'all something to eat." We left for Oklahoma the next morning.

There's another thing about this picture. I was with child then. I didn't know it at the time, or my mind didn't, but if you look at my face, staring off at the side of the road like that, you can see how I'm looking inward and outward at the same time, so some part of me must have known. So really, if I think about it, this is the only picture in existence of me and Ronnie and his daddy. That's another reason I love it. I don't care if a hundred thousand people see it, this picture is mine. My own and only, now. Oh, people act like they know everything, they tell all sorts of stories, don't none of them know the real truth. They don't. Me here, Sharon, his wife. I'm the one that knows Harlan.

I was fourteen years old the first time I laid eyes on him. He come walking out the road from Cookson on a hot May morning the week after school was out, 1931. It was a Saturday. My daddy was gone preaching. I was supposed to be sweeping the yard but what I was doing mostly was watching for Marie Tingle. She was a neighbor girl who sold Cloverine salve and delivered our GRIT once a week, and she rode an old white dray horse that mudged along slow as cream rising. I'd drag that shoemake broom through the dirt, weave a pattern out to the yard fence, and then I'd stand a while, looking. I aimed to be the first one at the gate when Marie got there, because if Mama saw her first, she'd come grab that magazine and put it away till we got the work done. Then she'd go off by herself to read the story, and the day would be half gone before I'd get my chance to read the next chapter. The GRIT ran a love story that went week to week, I was real anxious to find out what came next, I remember.

I seen him coming, I thought at first it was only the dust stirring, and then I thought it was a drunkard lolling, he had that rolling slap-footed gait, you know. I forgot all about Marie Tingle. I dropped the broom and ran up on the porch hollering, "Mama! Mama!" All five kids came tumbling out the door, and Mama right behind them. The dogs were barking a racket. Harlan kept coming along, he stopped outside the fence and said howdy, and then he stood there, peering up at us, smiling. Mama called the dogs off, they slunk back under the house, and after that it was just the sound of the locusts. Well, nobody was surprised to see a stranger in the road in those days, even if you lived a mile out from town, like we did, but Mama gawked at Harlan the way a calf looks at a new gate. He was all dressed up like he was set to go someplace. Believe me there wasn't anywhere to go around Cookson, Oklahoma, that would justify a tie and a snap-brim hat, but that's not what Mama was staring at anyway. She was looking at his face.

Oh, I can't describe it, you can see for yourself. What that picture don't show though is the color of his eyes, they were the prettiest light green. It don't show how smooth his skin was, just practically like he was covered in doeskin. You can't even see how long and black his eyelashes were, or how they curled up. Pretty. I'll bet that was the very word in my mama's mind. It was sure enough in mine. He asked for a drink of water, and Mama said, "Sharon, honey, go draw him some water."


Excerpted from Harpsong by Rilla Askew. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rilla Askew, born and raised in eastern Oklahoma, is the award-winning author of four novels, The Mercy Seat, Fire in Beulah, Harpsong, and Kind of Kin, and a collection of linked stories, Strange Business. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

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5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Harpsong. The title sings as does the story. Sometimes disturbing as good people struggled during the Depression, Harpsong is an anthem to the human spirit. Harlan Singer, a wanderer like so many of that era, steals the hearts of the Thompson family and their daughter Sharon. Soon he and his fourteen-year-old bride are part of an odyssey with others riding rails, hitchhiking and all with no particular destination. Unlike Grapes of Wrath¿a mostly incomplete account of Oklahoma during the Depression¿Harpsong was written by a native Oklahoman, not a carpetbagger who never visited the locale written about. Rilla Askew tells a wonderful and desperate story of those who stayed behind to deal with their fate. As one unnamed speaker says: ¿The Joads wouldn¿t have left out from Sallisaw or anywhere else around here on account of tractors and dust. They might have left, but it wouldn¿t have been due to tractors and dust, no matter what some stranger might have wrote in a book. Truth is, some left, but most stayed, dumb as lambs to the slaughter maybe, but we were determined to live with the devil we knew. That devil wore a few different faces.¿ With Harlan and Sharon, we live in hobo jungles, Hoovervilles and ride the rails in a giant figure eight with Oklahoma in the pinched middle. Always returning to Oklahoma, but never coming home, Sharon follows Harlan on his search for a somewhat mystical and mysterious friend. Along the way, Harlan Singer becomes another folk hero. Harpsong is a love story blended with history, folk tradition, adventure and renewal. The harshness of the times and the generosity of those with anything to share is also part of the story. It is a story of despair and perseverance, of love and brutality a story of wayfaring orphans searching for home only to find there is no home to return to. It is a story of hard luck people struggling in hard times Oklahoma, of bank foreclosures and failing farms. It is a story of faith and endurance. Speaking to the Grapes of Wrath-created myths about Oklahoma, award-winning author Rilla Askew continues her exploration of the American story in Harpssong, a novel built on legend and historical event in Depression era Oklahoma. Drawing from newspaper accounts of events from this time period and her own Oklahoma heritage, Askew reveals that not everyone left Oklahoma with Steinbeck¿s Joad family and that many of Oklahoma¿s folk heroes grew out of this era. Author Rilla Askew was born and raised in Eastern Oklahoma and knows whereof she writes. She is the author of a collection of stories, Strange Business, which won the Oklahoma Book Award and two other award winning novels, The Mercy Seat and Fire in Beulah. For the rest of the story about Oklahoma¿s Depression years and its people, Harpsong tells it like it was. Harpsong, is the first in the Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers series to be published the OU Press.
Eunie More than 1 year ago
Oklahoma, like much of the Midwest, was suffering from drought and the Depression, when Sharon saw Harlan Singer coming up the road. He was looking for work, but he wasn¿t much of a worker. Dark-haired, green-eyed and possessing a certain charm, fourteen-year-old Sharon was quickly smitten, as was he. Basically a good man, but one haunted by the past, he took Sharon from her family and married her. They lived on the road, riding the rails, thumbing rides, and were nearly always hungry. Harlan carried a harmonica and could coax from it music that spoke to people, and with his charm could make himself the leader he desired to be. He loved Sharon and she loved him, but the bride of a homeless man has no bed of roses to lie on. Harpsong is an excellent story, well written, and one that immerses the reader deep into the characters¿ lives.