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Harpsong (Stories & Storytellers Series) Hardcover – May 15, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in Depression-era Oklahoma and drawing inevitable comparison to The Grapes of Wrath, Askew's novel presents the best and worst of humanity in its depiction of hardscrabble lives lived during the Dust Bowl. Sharon Thompson is only 14 when cocksure wanderer Harlan Singer steals her heart and takes her on the road. The pair hop freight trains all around the heartland, earning pennies with Harlan's miraculous and captivating harmonica skills. They encounter both greedy authorities and kind strangers, including a run-in with some railroad police that almost kills Harlan, changing his and Sharon's life forever. Askew's command of language is a pleasure to behold, bringing out the pain and wonder of her story with a bittersweet immediacy.
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Rilla Askew is a lifelong Oklahoman, and clearly a historian. She uses Sharon and Harlan's peregrinations as a way to give the reader a tour of 1930s Oklahoma and Texas. They pass through the hobo jungles, and the railroad yards where the bulls ruthlessly seek out tramps in the train cars. They see the towns emptied by bank foreclosures, and the farms and homes of good people barely hanging on but willing to offer drifters a meal and a place to sleep.
Askew conveys the feelings of hopelessness, desperation, hunger, and fear of the future experienced by all levels of society during the Depression. Her descriptions of the dry, flat, hot landscape really stayed with me. I could almost feel the grit between my teeth and smell the cinders of a passing train.
The writing is very literary, but not the least bit flowery or strained. Only an Oklahoma native could make Sharon's voice ring so true to the place and time.
Unlike Grapes of Wrath--a mostly incomplete account of Oklahoma during the Depression--Harpsong was written by a native Oklahoman, not a carpetbagger who never visited the locale written about. Rilla Askew tells a wonderful and desperate story of those who stayed behind to deal with their fate.
As one unnamed speaker says: "The Joads wouldn't have left out from Sallisaw or anywhere else around here on account of tractors and dust. They might have left, but it wouldn't have been due to tractors and dust, no matter what some stranger might have wrote in a book. Truth is, some left, but most stayed, dumb as lambs to the slaughter maybe, but we were determined to live with the devil we knew. That devil wore a few different faces."
With Harlan and Sharon, we live in hobo jungles, Hoovervilles and ride the rails in a giant figure eight with Oklahoma in the pinched middle. Always returning to Oklahoma, but never coming home, Sharon follows Harlan on his search for a somewhat mystical and mysterious friend. Along the way, Harlan Singer becomes another folk hero.
Harpsong is a love story blended with history, folk tradition, adventure and renewal. The harshness of the times and the generosity of those with anything to share is also part of the story. It is a story of despair and perseverance, of love and brutality; a story of wayfaring orphans searching for home only to find there is no home to return to. It is a story of hard luck people struggling in hard times Oklahoma, of bank foreclosures and failing farms. It is a story of faith and endurance.
Speaking to the Grapes of Wrath-created myths about Oklahoma, award-winning author Rilla Askew continues her exploration of the American story in Harpssong, a novel built on legend and historical event in Depression era Oklahoma. Drawing from newspaper accounts of events from this time period and her own Oklahoma heritage, Askew reveals that not everyone left Oklahoma with Steinbeck's Joad family and that many of Oklahoma's folk heroes grew out of this era.
Author Rilla Askew was born and raised in Eastern Oklahoma and knows whereof she writes. She is the author of a collection of stories, Strange Business, which won the Oklahoma Book Award and two other award winning novels, The Mercy Seat and Fire in Beulah.
For the rest of the story about Oklahoma's Depression years and its people, Harpsong tells it like it was.
Harpsong, is the first in the Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers series to be published the OU Press.
Eunice Boeve author of Ride a Shadowed Trail