I’m a browser. Readers’ advisory aside (and believe me, I know the value of having a knowledgeable person suggest good books), I still love the feeling of finding a title I’d never heard of and discovering a whole new world. That isn’t restricted to wandering the physical stacks. I can also browse using the library’s catalog and the wonderful database NoveList (subscription required) and easily rack up enough reading to consume several lifetimes. Coming across a book like Harpsong validates my love of multimedia browsing.
Rilla Askew’s story of Depression-era Oklahoma, of the “friends and neighbors the Joads left behind” is powerful and memorable. It is the story of Harlan Singer, a wanderer in a time when wandering was likely to end with starvation, beatings, or lonely death along the railroad tracks. Harlan’s story is told in three voices—the accumulated folk voice that elevates words to deeds and deeds to myth; Harlan’s own stream-of-consciousness view; and the story told by his young wife, Sharon. Married when she was just fourteen, Sharon’s growth to womanhood is accompanied by physical trials (malnourished, she miscarries her first baby) and psychological ones. Although she deeply loves Harlan, Sharon is angered by his pain over the worldly ills he takes into himself, and does not understand the nascent philosophy of forgiveness Harlan tries to express to her.
Harlan is a natural musician, able to play every kind of stringed instrument, but he is an artist with the harmonica. His playing creates the birdsong, the sound of pick or shovel striking the drought-hardened ground, or the lonesome sound of a railroad crossing. Harlan’s music lifts up those who have been beaten down—the farm family which carries a song back to their toil, the black travelers who temporarily escape the deprivation of their Hoovervilles with a night of dancing and laughter, the pastor whose weariness is assuaged by a hymn. Harlan’s harmonica earns him and Sharon a few pennies for food and bonds them to those who keep them alive and traveling. Harlan talks about the 60% and the 40%—the 60% of people who, as in Jane Voss‘s lyric, “shared the thick and stretched the thin.”
And there are the 40%, those who are immune to the music and would take everything from those who have nothing. In Harpsong, they are railroad bulls who assault and rob hobos, or bankers who evict sharecroppers to increase profits, or the people who are frightened into rejecting New Deal assistance and burning shantytowns to drive out the destitute. Even those people are encompassed by Harlan’s drive to understand the human heart, much to the frustration of those who would force change on their own terms.
Askew recreates the bleak landscape of a hard country in a hard time with the eye of a cinematographer. But her real accomplishment lies in capturing people who don’t live as much as survive, and who don’t overcome as much as outlast. Sorrow, anger, despair and resignation haunt this story, but it is also infused with moments of redemption that lend it an air of hope.
It is an astonishing feat, and to me a reminder of all the stories that are on the shelves of our public libraries. Even the best readers’ advisors can’t know everything they own, but under the right circumstances will connect the reader with the book that meets his or her needs. But I’m not going to completely give up on browsing.
Check the WRL catalog for Harpsong.