Random Read

Shelter and Storm {excerpt}

In chapter 1 of Woody Guthrie’s recently revived novel, House of Earth, Depression-era farmers Tike and Ella May Hamlin fantasize about building a house of mud bricks. Home lust mixes with carnal lust. While he squeezes her nipples and kisses the back of her neck, she reads from Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Buildings, a Department of Agriculture pamphlet that he bought for a nickel: “It is fireproof. It is sweatproof. It does not take skilled labor. It is windproof. It can’t be eaten up by termites. . . . It is warm in cold weather. It is cool in hot weather.” Later, lying in the hay, they pause midcoitus to imagine their house of earth. Tike looks down to see the pamphlet fallen open by her side. “Ain’t no readin’ on th’ page,” he says. “Just some pictures. . . . Guys a makin’ th’ bricks. Gosh. Look what big ones. We could have our walls two feet thick if we just wanted to.” Ella May replies, “Wind certainly couldn’t blow any dust and dirt through a wall that thick, could it? Hmmm? Ohh. Tike, honey, baby, sweetie pie, sugar dumpling, gosh, I love you.” They repeat the house-of-earth fantasy later, as gusts and blizzards rattle their rotting shack.

As with most of his folk songs, Guthrie’s novel is political. The economic and environmental disasters that Tike and Ella May contend with arose from the government’s feeble response to Depression hardships and agricultural failures. The characters curse banks and business owners. The author pits adobe against lumber in a proletariat versus capitalist showdown. Mud bricks are stout and reliable. Inexpensive, egalitarian. Anyone with dirt and gumption can make them. As Kirkus Reviews put it, “The new civilization of banks, deeds and lawyers is represented by wood, which is scarce out in that wind-blasted, dry country; adobe, sun-dried mud brick is the virtuous stuff of the people, themselves wind-blasted and creaky with aridity but stiff-necked and disinclined to bow down.”