House Of Earth by Woody Guthrie

(Fourth Estate $34.99)

Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie wrote many of his most enduring folk songs after trekking through America's dust-bowl during the years of the Depression and dispossession. Now, nearly seven decades after he shaped it, this strange, rhapsodic fiction appears for the first time.

A very long, very sententious introduction - for which Johnny Depp is partly responsible - claims the book's ecological awareness as prophetic, and its intensely rendered celebrations of natural life as the pinnacle of Guthrie's literary genius. Yes, well ...


The story follows Tike and Ella May, dirt-poor farmers in the Texas panhandle, while they struggle to build an adobe house which will shelter them properly against searing sun and scything winds.

Ella and Tike are dogged, tenacious, "wiry, hard-hitting, hardworking". They're also irreverent and irrepressibly randy (there are sex scenes that must have made prospective 1940s publishers turn white; barns especially are for 20-page bonking).

And they're interminably loquacious. They converse, joke or soliloquise about everything that moves or fails to move: the wireless, their unborn child, the tin roof, the nature of human reason.

The plot is intermittent, inconclusive, possibly incomplete. House of Earth is a paean rather than a narrative. Building their home becomes an emblem of Tike and Ella striving to build assurance and dignity; the birth of their child is a symbol of new life in the land.

Individual details are memorable: tumbleweeds bouncing over parched flats; a farmer dismembered by his tractor; Tike crowing and dancing as he feeds the chooks; Ella's shoes made from old lorry tyres.

It's a talkin' book in several ways. There are lengthy polemics against capitalism, the Ku Klux Klan, bankers and politicians, avarice in general. Balanced against this is Guthrie's characteristic empathy for the bruised and battling: "Why can't we own enough land to exist on, to work on, to live on like human beings ... Why has it just got to be dog-eat-dog?"

The pervasive Okie patois is hard work - sometimes entertaining, but more often irritating. Lyrical bits suggest D.H. Lawrence with a sugar overdose. In among them are utterly terrific lines which read like the best of Woody's songs. "(W)here the wind sports, high, wide and handsome, and the houses lay apart"; "Get a hold of a piece of earth for yourself. Get it like this."

More than a curiosity, less than a literary achievement. A tribute to those people in those days, and a singular work from a singular man.