This Land Is Your Land: House of Earth Review

Blurb for House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now, House of Earth is Woody Guthrie’s only fully realized novel—a powerful portrait of Dust Bowl America, filled with the homespun lyricism and authenticity that have made his songs a part of our national consciousness. It is 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 struggle 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.

Though they are one with the farm and with each other, the land on which Tike and Ella May live and work is not theirs. Due to larger forces beyond their control—including ranching conglomerates and banks—their adobe house remains painfully out of reach.

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.

My Review

I don’t really know why I picked this up beyond a sense of curiosity and being in the mood for a bit of folksy literature. I knew of Woody Guthrie as a singer-songwriter, though the timeline of his career was a bit fuzzy to me partially because I had him and his son Arlo Guthrie mixed up into one person in my head, but I had no idea he was also a writer of prose and somewhat of an artist. I was also intrigued by the fact that Johnny Depp is credited as co-author of the forward. Apparently, as a musician and artist he was part of the process of getting this long forgotten manuscript ready for publication and distribution. I’ll admit, I got interested.

The forward provides a partial biography of Woody Guthrie as well as context for the folk music scene he traveled and the realities of the life of small farmers during the Great Depression. It details Guthrie’s own discovery of and fascination with the adobe house, or “house of earth” and how he envisioned it as the answer to the fundamental issue of housing as poor farmers were increasingly being evicted from their homes and land by foreclosing banks.

I appreciated the lyricism of the writing, which is definitely reminiscent of the easy rhythm and repetition of folk music from the era. It is a quick read and kept me interested with its matter-of-fact presentation, even throughout content that usually would have me either skipping generously or just putting the book down. A sexual encounter between Tike and Ella May, the married couple who are the main characters, while somewhat unnecessarily detailed and lengthy, didn’t come across to me as anything I would usually consider graphic, although technically it was. Instead, it seemed… plain, every-day, and, while full of evidence that the couple loves each other very much, not particularly erotic, which was as unexpected as it was somewhat inexplicable. It had everything to do with the writing and the details that are included.

Beyond the cyclical, symbolic quality that the scene lent to the narrative, I don’t see much purpose for including it at the length it was. Cyclically, it starts the book with intercourse and then the book ends with Ella May giving birth. Symbolically, it is about the earth and the fertility of the ground on which they stand, and live, and love.

In fact, content-wise, this book is rather short on anything one might consider plot and much longer on giving voice to Guthrie’s own personal soap-box: adobe housing and all that the structures represent for accessibility, quality, and longevity. In the forward, it’s mentioned that Guthrie delayed publishing this novel because he was aiming for it to be turned into a film. Reading it, it seems more fitting to be adapted into a short play. There is only really one setting of action and only three characters who appear: Tike, Ella May, and the local nurse who comes to help deliver the baby. And these characters, while interesting enough and compelling in their own ways, are very clearly vessels for the message. The message did not flow naturally from them, instead, they were products of the prepared message.

That message is worth listening to. The points about building houses from earth that is well-insulated, withstands all weather, and most of all does not depend on store-bought goods to repair when it deteriorates do sound pretty good. It is sustainable, costs next to nothing, but can built from the ground on which the farmer stands.

Though it is a socialist cause about enabling the poor, Guthrie makes it clear that realising the dream of building earth houses rests firmly on the individual’s ability to own land outright instead of perpetually leasing from unscrupulous lenders and corporations. Land is critical, the only thing worth owning for life and for continued existence. It reminded me of The Good Earth in that sense–the mourning of an age in which people valued land and self-sufficiency, instead of trading it away for valueless currency to be imprisoned in the cycle of unsustainable consumerism and incalculable debt.

It was an interesting read. I alternately liked and hated Tike, wondered what was going on with Ella May, and felt fear for both them, their immediate situation, and the uncertainty of their projected future, locked into debt and poverty on land they don’t own and that won’t produce no matter how hard they work.

Do I think it a rediscovered Great American Novel™? No, not really. I don’t think it is overly successful at the form. Instead, it seems to share a lot more characteristics of Guthrie’s brand of folk music, as I mentioned earlier: repetitive, lyrical, simple, and containing a pure hope in possibility.

It is more of a ballad than a novel, evocative of an atmosphere and of an age, about plain, poor people who nevertheless have the audacity to dream of something better. Not getting rich or accumulating power, but of owning a place for themselves and their families to live and grow and thrive on their own land. It’s Guthrie’s story, really, his song.

This has been my first Classics Club Book List review! Check out my whole list here.

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