Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now, House of Earth is legendary folk singer and American icon Woody Guthrie’s only finished novel. A powerful portrait of Dust Bowl America, it’s the story of an ordinary couple’s dreams of a better life and their search for love and meaning in a corrupt world.Tike and Ella May Hamlin are struggling to plant roots in the arid land of the Texas panhandle. The husband and wife live in a precarious wooden farm shack, but Tike yearns for a sturdy house that will protect them from the treacherous elements. Thanks to a five-cent government pamphlet, Tike has the know-how to build a simple adobe dwelling, a structure made from the land itself—fireproof, windproof, Dust Bowl-proof. A house of earth.A story of rural realism and progressive activism, and in many ways a companion piece to Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” House of Earth is a searing portrait of hardship and hope set against a ravaged landscape. Combining the moral urgency and narrative drive of John Steinbeck with the erotic frankness of D. H. Lawrence, here is a powerful tale of America from one of our greatest artists.An essay by bestselling historian Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp introduce House of Earth, the inaugural title in Depp’s imprint at HarperCollins, Infinitum Nihil.
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About the Author
Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (1912-1967) was an American folk balladeer whose best-known song is "This Land Is Your Land." His musical legacy includes more than three thousand songs, covering an exhaustive repertoire of historical, political, cultural, topical, spiritual, narrative, and children's themes.
Read an Excerpt
House of Earth
By Woody Guthrie
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Woody Guthrie
All rights reserved.
The wind of the upper flat plains sung a high lonesome song down across the blades of the dry iron grass. Loose things moved in the wind but the dust lay close to the ground.
It was a clear day. A blue sky. A few puffy, white-looking thunderclouds dragged their shadows like dark sheets across the flat Cap Rock country. The Cap Rock is that big high, crooked cliff of limestone, sand-rock, marble, and flint that divides the lower west Texas plains from the upper north panhandle plains. The canyons, dry wash rivers, sandy creek beds, ditches, and gullies that joined up with the Cap Rock cliff form the graveyard of past Indian civilizations, flying and testing grounds of herds of leather-winged bats, drying grounds of monster- size bones and teeth, roosting, nesting, and the breeding place of the bald-headed big brown eagle. Dens of rattlesnakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, jackrabbit, cottontail, ants, horny butterfly, horned toad, and stinging winds and seasons. These things all were born of the Cap Rock cliff and it was alive and moving with all these and with the mummy skeletons of early settlers of all colors. A world close to the sun, closer to the wind, the cloudbursts, floods, gumbo muds, the dry and dusty things that lose their footing in this world, and blow, and roll, jump wire fences, like the tumbleweed, and take their last earthly leap in the north wind out and down, off the upper north plains, and down onto the sandier cotton plains that commence to take shape west of Clarendon.
A world of big stone twelve room houses, ten room wood houses, and a world of shack houses. There are more of the saggy, rotting shack houses than of the nicer wood houses, and the shack houses all look to the larger houses and curse out at them, howl, cry, and ask questions about the rot, the filth, the hurt, the misery, the decay of land and of families. All kinds of fights break out between the smaller houses, the shacks, and the larger houses. And this goes for the town where the houses lean around on one another, and for the farms and ranch lands where the wind sports high, wide, and handsome, and the houses lay far apart. All down across this the wind blows. And the people work hard when the wind blows, and they fight even harder when the wind blows, and this is the canyon womb, the stickery bed, the flat pallet on the floor of the earth where the wind its own self was born.
The rocky lands around the Cap Rock cliff are mostly worn slick from suicide things blowing over it. The cliff itself, canyons that run into it, are banks of clay and layers of sand, deposits of gravel and flint rocks, sandstone, volcanic mixtures of dried-out lavas, and in some places the cliff wears a wig of nice iron grass that lures some buffalo, antelope, or beef steer out for a little bit, then slips out from underfoot, and sends more flesh and blood to the flies and the buzzards, more hot meals down the cliff to the white fangs of the coyote, the lobo, the opossum, coon, and skunk.
Old Grandpa Hamlin dug a cellar for his woman to keep her from the weather and the men. He dug it one half of one mile from the rim of Cap Rock cliff. He loved Della as much as he loved his land. He raised five of his boys and girls in the dugout. They built a yellow six- room house a few yards from the cellar. Four more children came in this yellow six room house, and he took all of his children several trips down along the cliff rim, and pointed to the sky and said to them, "Them same two old eagles flyin' an' circlin' yonder, they was circlin' there on th' mornin' that I commenced to dig my dugout, an' no matter what hits you, kids, or no matter what happens to you, don't git hurried, don't git worried, 'cause the same two eagles will see us all come an' see us all go."
And Grandma Della Hamlin told them, "Get a hold of a piece of earth for yerself. Get a hold of it like this. And then fight. Fight to hold on to it like this. Wood rots. Wood decays. This ain't th' country to get a hold of nothin' made out of wood in. This ain't th' country of trees. This ain't even a country fer brush, ner even fer bushes. In this streak of th' land here you can't fight much to hold on to what's wood, 'cause th' wind an' th' sun, an' th' weather here's just too awful hard on wood. You can't fight your best unless you got your two feet on th' earth, an' fightin' fer what's made out of th' earth." And walking along the road that ran from the Cap Rock back to the home place, she would tell them, "My worst pain's always been we didn't raise up a house of earth 'stead of a house of wood. Our old dugout it was earth and it's outlived a hundred wood houses."
Still, the children one by one got married and moved apart. Grandma and Grandpa Hamlin could stand on the front porch of their old home place and see seven houses of their sons and daughters. Two had left the plains. One son moved to California to grow walnuts. A daughter moved to Joplin to live with a lead and zinc miner. Rocking back and forth in her chair on the porch, Della would say, "Hurts me, soul an' body, to look out acrost here an' see of my kinds a- livin' in those old wood houses." And Pa would smoke his pipe and watch the sun go down and say, "Don't fret so much about 'em, Del, they just take th' easy way. Cain't see thirty years ahead of their noses."
Tike Hamlin's real name was Arthur Hamlin. Della and Pa had called him Little Tyke on the day that he was born, and he had been Tike Hamlin ever since. The brand of Arthur was frozen into a long icicle and melted into the sun, gone and forgotten, and not even his own papa and mama thought of Arthur except when some kind of legal papers had to be signed or something like that.
Tike was the only one of the whole Hamlin tribe that was not born up on top of the Cap Rock. There was a little oblong two- room shack down in a washout canyon where his mama had planted several sprigs of wild yellow plum bushes near the doorstep. She dug up the plum roots and chewed on them for snuff sticks, and she used the chewed sticks to brush her teeth. The shack fell down so bad that she got afraid of snakes, lizards, flies, bugs, gnats, and howling coyotes, and argued her husband into building a five room house on six hundred and forty acres of new wheat land just one mile due north, on a straight line, from the old Pa Hamlin dugout.
Tike was a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant, wise in the lessons taught by fighting the weather and working the land, wise in the tricks of the men, women, animals, and all of the other things of nature, wise to guess a blizzard, a rainstorm, dry spell, the quick change of the hard wind, wise as to how to make friends, and how to fight enemies. Ignorant as to the things of the schools. He was a wiry, hard-hitting, hardworking sort of a man. There was no extra fat around his belly because he burned it up faster than it could grow there. He was five feet and eight inches tall, square built, but slouchy in his actions, hard of muscle, solid of bone and lungs, but with a good wide streak of laziness somewhere in him. He was of the smiling, friendly, easygoing, good-humored brand, but used his same smile to fool if he hated you, and grinned his same little grin even when he got the best or the worst end of a fistfight. As a young boy, Tike had all kinds of fights over all matters and torn off all kinds of clothes and come home with all kinds of cuts and bruises. But now he was in this thirty-third year, and a married man; his wife, Ella May, had taught him not to fight and tear up five dollars' worth of clothes unless he had a ten dollar reason.
His hard work came over him by spells and his lazy dreaming came over him to cure his tired muscles. He was a dreaming man with a dreaming land around him, and a man of ideas and of visions as big, as many, as wild, and as orderly as the stars of the big dark night around him. His hands were large, knotty, and big boned, skin like leather, and the signs of his thirty-three years of salty sweat were carved in his wrinkles and veins. His hands were scarred, covered with old gashes, the calluses, cuts, burns, blisters that come from winning and losing and carrying a heavy load.
Ella May was thirty-three years old, the same age as Tike. She was small, solid of wind and limb, solid on her two feet, and a fast worker. She was a woman to move and to move fast and to always be on the move. Her black hair dropped down below her shoulders and her skin was the color of windburn. She woke Tike up out of his dreams two or three times a day and scolded him to keep moving. She seemed to be made out of the same stuff that movement itself is made of. She was energy going somewhere to work. Power going through the world for her purpose.
Her two hands hurt and ached and moved with a nervous pain when there was no work to be done.
Tike ran back from the mailbox waving a brown envelope n the wind. " 'S come! Come! Looky! Hey! Elly Mayyy!" He skidded his shoe soles on the hard ground as he ran up into the yard. "Lady!"
The ground around the house was worn down smooth, packed hard from footprints, packed still harder from the rains, and packed still harder from the soapy wash water that had been thrown out from tubs and buckets. A soapy coat of whitish wax was on top of the dirt in the yard, and it had soaked down several inches into the earth at some spots. The strong smell of acids and lyes came up to meet Ella May's nose as she carried two heavy empty twenty gallon cream cans across the yard.
"Peeewwweee." She frowned up toward the sun, then across the cream cans at Tike, then back at the house.
"Stinking old hole."
"Look." Tike put the envelope into her hand. "Won't be stinky long."
"Why? What's going to change it so quick all at once?
Hmmm?" She looked down at the letter. "Hmmmm. United States Department of Agriculture. Mmmmm. Come on.
We've got four more cream cans to carry from the windmill. I've been washing them out."
"Look inside." He followed her to the mill and rested his chin on her shoulder. "Inside."
"Grab yourself two cream cans, big boy."
"Look at th' letter."
"I'm not going to stop my work to read no letter from nobody, especially from no old Department of Agriculture. Besides, my hands are all wet. Get those two cans there and help me to put them over on that old bench close to the kitchen window."
"Kitchen window? We ain't even got no kitchen." Tike caught hold of the handles of two of the cans and carried them along at her side. "Kitchen. Bull shit."
"I make out like it's my kitchen." She bent down at the shoulders under the weight of the cans. "Close as we'll ever get to one, anyhow." A little sigh of tired sadness was in her voice. Her words died down and the only sound was that of their shoe soles against the hard earth, and over all a cry that is always in these winds. "Whewww."
"Heavy? Lady?" He smiled along at her side and kept his eye on the letter in her apron pocket.
The wind was stiff enough to lift her dress up above her knees.
"You quit that looking at me, Mister Man."
"You can see that I've got my hands full of these old cream cans. I can't help it. I can't pull it down."
"Free show. Free show," Tike sang out to the whole world as the wind showed him the nakedness of her thighs.
"You mean old thing, you."
"Hey, cows. Horses. Pugs. Piggeeee. Free show. Hey."
"Hyeeah, Shep. Hyeah, Ring. Chick, chick, chick, chick, chickeeee. Kitty, kitty, kitty, meeeooowww. Meeeooowww. Blow, Mister Wind! I married me a wife, and she don't even want me to see her legs! Blow!" He dug his right elbow into her left breast.
"Blowww!" "Tike! Stop. Silly. Nitwit."
"Blowwww!" He rattled his two cans as he lifted them up onto the bench. In order to be polite, he reached to take hers and to set them up for her, but she steered out of his reach.
"You're downright vulgar. You're filthy minded. You're just about the meanest, orneriest, no-accountest one man that I ever could pick out to marry! Looking at me that a -away. Teasing me. That's just what you are. An old mean teaser. Quit that! I'll set my own cans on the bench." She lifted her cans.
"Lady." The devil of hell was in his grin.
"Don't. Don't you try to lady me." Her face changed from a half smile into a deep and tender hurt, a hurt that was older, and a hurt that was bigger than her own self. "This whole house here is just like that old rotten fell-down bench there. That old screen it's going to just dry up and blow to smithereens one of these days."
Excerpted from House of Earth by Woody Guthrie. Copyright © 2013 by Woody Guthrie. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Awesome! I felt as though I was experiencing that era myself. The cold, the heat and the love of a time long gone but not forgotten. Thank you Mr. Brinkley and Mr. Depp for sharing this true, treasure.
I'll admit that I had trouble getting into this novel. In the beginning, there were lots of repetition of phrases, as in a song. Written by a one of the greatest songwriters of the time, the more I read, the more I enjoyed the rhythm of his use of adjectives to decribe many things. It was a great story written during the time of The Dust Bowl. It tells of the hard times people went through, their love, and their hope for a better tomorrow. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle and Mr. Guthrie described the land in such detail from the High Plains to the edge of the Caprock, a true gem!
House of Earth, by Woody GuthrieAfter 70 years, a gritty, poetic story of the struggle to survive One year. And what is a year? A year is something that can be added on, but can never be taken away… A year is that nervous craving to do your good job and to draw down your good pay, and to join your good union….And a year of work is three hundred and sixty-four, or –five, or –six days of the run, the hurry, the walking, the bouncing, and the jumping up and down, the arguments, fights, the liquor brawls, hangovers, headaches, and all. Such is the beautifully evocative, earthy prose from House of Earth, the only novel written by radical organizer, poet, singer, and songwriter Woody Guthrie, written in 1947 and just published posthumously. Guthrie writes of one young hardworking family during the Depression, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, their struggles to make a living off the land, trying to keep body and soul together and have a child in a shack that can barely stand up to the beatings of the Texas Panhandle. He paints a sympathetic but clear-eyed and honest portrayal of working people, real people, not the noble, but often one-dimensional, portrayals of workers in the murals of the 1930s in the US and USSR, and certainly not the simplistic proles so condescended to in George Orwell’s 1984. The Hamlins rent a rickety house on decent farmland, but it’s an endless struggle to keep the crops coming up and food on the table, especially with their first child on the way and the bank breathing down their necks. Tike’s dream is an adobe house. Not a cheap wooden house built by the tight-fisted landowners that leaks and creaks and rattles in the wind, but a mud brick house literally made of earth that stands up to the climate and can’t be blown down, burned down, or repossessed by the bank. Tike sends away for a pamphlet from the government on how to build one, and he keeps it in his pocket at all times, almost like a latter-day bible, drawing almost a religious hope from his goal of living in an earthen house. It’s a book about struggle, but not a book about strikes and picket lines. This is the day to day struggle to raise kids, stay fed, clothed, housed and sane with only the barest of tools to make it happen. But most workers even in the 1930s didn’t spend the majority of their time organizing, however heroic the efforts of the Communist Party and other organizers in fighting the ravages of capitalism. It was mostly a constant struggle just to hold on, even with faith in a pipe dream like an adobe house. It’s hard to know if Guthrie really thought that was a solution, or was just using the vision of an adobe house to show that even something as basic as a solid roof is unattainable under capitalism, since if it doesn’t generate profits, it doesn’t get built. As the product of hardscrabble Oklahoma farmers, Guthrie wasn’t at all afraid to show the both strengths and flaws in his characters, from the diligent workers to their sometimes not-so-diligent neighbors, their tenderness and their less admirable traits, like Tike’s occasional sexism. They need each other to survive. Ella Mae works every bit as hard, if not harder, than Tike, acting as the real anchor to the family. It’s to Guthrie’s credit, incredibly for a book written over 65 years ago, that he doesn’t shy away from straightforward dealings of relationships and sexual relations between a working class man and wife as a real part of their life on the plains (he gives new meaning to the phrase "roll in the hay"). Aside from their conversations, sex, occasional interactions with the neighbors, and a very faulty radio, there’s not a lot to distract from the constant work. But the lyrical and honest descriptions of life on the farm during the Depression, of life in general, the nuances of the characters and the tense, desperate scenes of childbirth on the open plains in the midst of a blizzard are gripping, taking the place of the more elaborate stories and plots in other fiction. For the most part, Tike and Ella Mae don’t succumb to defeatism. But that, too, is a constant effort, with the ever-present threat of foreclosure facing them and thousands of other farmers a dark cloud hanging over their lives, no matter how bright the real sky might be. For anyone who opposes the profit system, or wants to know how life looks from the bottom up, or just appreciates lyrical but unvarnished language, this is an important book, well worth reading. It’s a great read, but also a beautiful depiction of working class people and life, their strengths and weaknesses, and the choices — however limited — people without money make under capitalism. As portrayed in House of Earth, the dream of something as basic as a house of earth will remain just that, a dream, as long as the bankers own the land, until we take it away and give it to the people who work it.
Anyone who misses this book will miss Americana at its finest. Woody Guthrie was an oracle for our futures.
First, pornographic. Once you are past that, it is irreplaceable. Unusual writing style does not cover it. Unique and well worth the read. In fact, i would go so far as to be grateful to those who make it possible to have, read, and share.
I have to be honest on this review. This was one of the most boring and unreadable books I have ever purchased. I must say I wasted my money on this one. I couldn't even read half of it because the way the characters talked was totally nonsence. The only reason I gave it one star was because I had to so I could continue with the review. Trust me. Don't waste your time and money.
A good read. There is a lot of depth, but I would look at the overall story line, which is good. These people struggled and took nothing from anyone. What is unusual is the writing is down to earth and maybe accurate for the people, not just then, but now. Descriptions are down to the point and spot on with real detail.
i didn't realize the book was so earthy in sexual expressed content. i would not have bought it . i did not read the whole book. a couple of chapters were enough for me. i wish i could return it with another replacement more to my liking.