As noted in an essay penned by the pair that appeared in the Times, House of Earth was inspired by Guthrie’s own experiences living through the Dust Bowl, as well as his reading of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie’s own writing of “This Land Is Your Land.” Perhaps the key source of inspiration, however, came when Guthrie saw the sturdy adobe haciendas while he busked in New Mexico – he was amazed by the weatherproof structures that could withstand the worst the Dust Bowl threw at them.
The novel tells the story of two West Texas farmers, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who despite an intense connection with the land they live on can’t keep their house safe from damage in the dust storms, until Tike decides to build a new home out of adobe. But since Tike and Ella’s home is on land owned by a big bank in cahoots with a lumber company, the project is forbidden.
As Depp and Brinkely write: “In Guthrie’s fierce proletarian worldview, the rural poor are thereby shafted by the iron boot heel of capitalist greed merchants, and he finger-points everyone from bankers to lumbermen to termite-like real estate brokers, enemies of the little guy. At a key juncture, Tike rails against the sheep mentality of honest folks in Texas and Oklahoma who let the capitalist vultures steal from them.”
Encouraged by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax (who wrote of the book, “It was quite simply the best material I’d ever seen written about that section of the country”), Guthrie finished House of Earth in 1947, put it away, and focused on songwriting. It’s possible, as Depp and Brinkely note, that he was aware the book might not get published due to its content (both passé and ahead of its time) as well as Guthrie’s “fertility cycle prose” and “use of an overdrawn hillbilly dialogue.”
When Depp and Brinkley shared the whole novel with Bob Dylan, the musician said he was “surprised by the genius” of the prose.
This seems like an apt time for publication. The duo writes that the book is “a meditation about how poor people search for love and meaning in a corrupt world, one in which the rich have lost their moral compasses. Even though the backdrop is the washed-out agricultural fields of Texas, the novel could just as easily be set in a refugee camp in Sudan or a shantytown in Haiti.”