Harpsong

( 2 )

Overview

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 ...

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Harpsong

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Overview

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.

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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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806139289
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2009
  • Series: Stories and Storytellers Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 703,232
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Rilla Askew, born and raised in eastern Oklahoma, is the award-winning author of two novels, The Mercy Seat (PEN/Faulkner nominee, Oklahoma Book Award, and Western Heritage Award), and Fire in Beulah (American Book Award and Myers Book Award).
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2007

    The rest of the story

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A story of how love can survive in the worst of times.

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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