~post by Consuelo
I was born and raised in Pampa, Texas – a town in which Woody Guthrie lived several years during that definitive time of The Dust Bowl, when he was first learning that he had something to say and that he wanted to say it with music. As a child, us elementary school kids would gather in the park on his birthday and sing his songs for a crowd of parents. There’s even a sculpture in Pampa of the first few bars of “This Land is Your Land.” But I’d let all these things fade in my memory until I recently decided to reacquaint myself with Woody.
I’ve dug into all the songs and read Bound For Glory, Guthrie’s autobiography published in 1943. Even if I wasn’t from Pampa, this book is right in my wheelhouse. He tells a series of anecdotes, from his childhood in Oklahoma to his days in New York and all those cross-country train rides in between, that form a complete picture of the man, the country, and the people. His early life was marked with tragedy, and it’s lucky for us that he kept an open spirit, questioning life and never blaming it. He has such a strong voice, in both his songs and books, that he’s surpassed his own time and speaks for every generation.
Seventy years after Bound for Glory we are gifted with House of Earth, Guthrie’s only complete novel. It is the story of Tike and Ella May Hamlin, a couple on the upper Texas plains just trying to get by in a rented wooden shack, who dream of building a sturdy adobe house after reading a government pamphlet. Guthrie tells the story through two days in Tike and Ella May’s lives, a year apart. His characters are so vivid that even this seemingly brief glimpse gives us a complete tale. Tike is a teasing, dreaming, hardworking, loving man. Ella May is a feisty, quick-witted, hardworking, loving woman. I’m usually reluctant to use this word, but I was surprised by how romantic this book is. Their relationship is full of laughter and passion. I was riveted from start to finish because it is such a deceptively simple story, and yet so complicated with pain, love, hopes, and worries. It reflects what we already knew Guthrie was capable of with his music.
It was so fascinating to read two books in which my home place figures so prominently. I have felt that panhandle wind slap dirt against my bare skin and into my eyes, and Guthrie’s words reminded me of this place that I came from that shaped who I am. Guthrie once said, “…you can look further, see less…than anywhere else.” That about sums it up, which doesn’t sound too exciting when everything is dry and brown and yellow. But when there is nothing in the way, it makes for the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Guthrie really understood that duality – reconciling the beauty with the hardships of the Texas panhandle and its people. I don’t make it back to Pampa very often anymore, but next time I’m there I’m going to grab a handful of dirt and let the wind blow it away and think that maybe it could have been a house of earth during those Dust Bowl years that had such an impact on Woody.