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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Harpsong by Rilla Askew

Harpsong by Rilla Askew. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8061-3823

This is not a happy story. Set in the middle of the depression, it features an Okie-style drifter who calls himself Harlan Singer, and his bride, fourteen-year old Sharon, as they ride the rails, subsist in migrant camps and hobo jungles, and witness the bread basket of the country going to hell in a hand basket.

Harlan is a master musician, kind of a Woody Guthrie type fellow, before Woodie Guthrie's time, as the first “folksay” chapter tells it. He mostly played the harmonica, or mouth harp (hence the book's title), as they called it then. But that was because it was the only instrument he could carry around with him, hopping freight trains and the like. He could play most any instrument he got his hands on. And he could make up music that charmed folks like nothing else. He could play the wind, the sounds of the trains, the whippoorwill's song, pretty much anything he'd ever heard.

So while this is not a happy story, it's a powerful one. It has depth, and poetry, and raw feelings, and history, and more, all wrapped up in it. It has the increasing anguish of a poetic soul who sees the world going wrong all around him, and can't help but identify with the hurt but can't see any way to fix it, or himself. It's also a powerful love story between two people who can't help hurting each other, but whose love for one another carries them most, if not all of the way.

And all through it runs the music and the poetry of an increasingly lost and hurt soul. Pick this book up, give it half a chance, and you'll find yourself unable to stop turning those painful pages. All the way to the end. The inevitable end that you know is coming, but that can't be stopped, any more than one of those freight trains can.

According to the title page, this is Volume 1 in the “Oklahoma Stories & Storytellers series.” If any of the subsequent volumes are any where near as good as this one, it will definitely be a series to watch for. Strongly and powerfully recommended.

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