“…You’ll hear all kinds of stories: his mama was an antlered doe with a scream like a Cooper’s hawk. He was whelped by a she-wolf and weaned on panther milk…he gobbled his deathsong a dozen and one times to sing about it.” The legend of Harlan Singer is larger than his life, but his life, as told in this historically evocative novel, is big enough for three or four larger, stronger, older men.
Sharon falls in love with him when she is only 14, when he comes to her family’s farm offering to do some chores, chores that include playing the harmonica in the evenings to soothe the nerves of her careworn father and her nervous, overworked mother. In secret, he “sparks” their teenage daughter. The setting is Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and Harlan’s girlfriend soon becomes Mrs. Singer, eloper and fellow traveler on boxcars and empty roads, and mother of the son he would never meet.
The adventures they encounter on the way are drawn from the yellowed newspapers of the times, living in hobo encampments and avoiding the violent railroad detectives whose job it is to throw them out of town as soon as they get there. The story of Sharon and Harlan is interwoven with the voices of those they left behind, the “folksay” of the community they sprang from. His viewpoint is expressed in brief poetic dreams titled “deepsong”.
Through most of the book, Harlan is obsessively seeking a man named Profit (we hear/see the word “prophet” in his recollections of the character who saved his life when he was younger). Harlan is rumored to have robbed a bank, a bank for which Sharon’s preacher father is an employee, hired because his religious sensibilities make it easier for him to dispense bad economic news to his hopeless desperate neighbors. Sharon is running away from the grueling, unrewarding life on the farm, one of many starving children who took to the roads during the Great Depression, though it’s unlikely she would have left without the incentive of Harlan and his music and his magic.
Sharon and Harlan are linked by love, suffering and common experience, but the reader knows that she does not have the wanderlust and troubadour urge that spur him on. She has to come to terms with the fact that to survive, Harlan has become a thief
- and worse. She needs some kind of home and peace, and it’s not surprising that their best days, and their last – are spent in the cabin of a man named Calm.
The two lovers twist and turn without a compass point through the Great Plains,
ending up back near home when Harlan becomes the folk hero he had obviously longed to be, but
probably not in the way that he would have chosen.
Rilla Askew is an award-winning writer who says her subject is America and Oklahoma is her canvas. She wrote an earlier book,
Fire in Beulah, about race riots in Tulsa. Her writing style is enchanting with a touch of the brutal, spare and forceful with the realism and grit of Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, two authors with whom she has been compared.