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Harlan Singer, a gifted harmonica-playing troubadour, shows up in the Thompson family’s yard one morning. He steals their hearts with his music, and their daughter with his charm. Soon he and his fourteen-year-old bride, Sharon, are on the road, two more hobos of the Great Depression, hitchhiking and hopping freights in search of an old man and the settlement of Harlan’s long-standing debt.

The newlyweds careen around the Great Plains in a giant figure eight, with Oklahoma in the middle, “the squeezed-in hourglass place.” The young couple’s hardships play out against the backdrop of communal hardships of the era, as they appear in hobo jungles and Hoovervilles, rabbit drives and dust storms, bank robberies, cow killings, and the siege of a county courthouse by out-of-work miners and their families in the coal-mining district. Harlan is searching for an old man named Profit, who once saved Harlan’s life. Sharon's doubts about her husband's quest set in motion events that ultimately turn Harlan into a folk hero and a fugitive from the law.



American Book Award-winning author Askew mixes fiction with legend and history in this extraordinary novel of Oklahoma during the Great Depression, Volume 1 of the 'Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers' series. Harmonica-playing Harlan Singer marries 14-year-old Sharon Thompson, and they immediately take to riding the rails. Unlike many Okies, however, they never go to California but instead keep making figure eights, always returning to their center point, Oklahoma. The charismatic Harlan—a brilliant musician and storyteller with friends among the hobos, Cherokees, and African Americans—has taken Sharon along on his own mysterious quest. Sometimes they steal, but only needed food and clothing, and they always try to repay their debts. Throughout, Askew interweaves three narrative strands: Sharon's voice; Harlan's poetry, or 'deepsong'; and 'folksay,' the legends and history surrounding these two. The result is a vivid portrait of an age and a place, of desperate poverty, near starvation, red dust, and strong biblical faith. Regional literature at its finest; highly recommended. --Mary Margaret Benson


Harpsong tells the story of Harlan Singer, a fictional folk hero in depression-era Oklahoma. The story is told in three voices: folksay, which generates the myth of Harlan Singer and how he rose into legend; Sharon, the voice of Harlan’s “possum-haired” teenage wife, who, with gritty, relentless practicality, tries to hold to the truth of things; and deepsong, which is Harlan’s own version of his calling—lyrical bursts of verse expressed mostly from the “bed of white stones” in Harlan’s thicketed, riverside hideout.

The thing is, Harlan Singer (aka Wee Willie Jonesey, W. William Jones) is homeless. He limps into Sharon’s sharecropper yard in Cookson, Oklahoma (the secret of Harlan’s limp is one of several secrets, slowly revealed) and takes up with the family for a while, doing the odd chore and ineffectually helping with the cotton crop. As he does everywhere, he initially charms the family with his harmonica playing and ability to write lyrics on the spot. But after witnessing a kiss in the cotton field, Sharon’s mother becomes wary, and orders Harlan away. He and Sharon steal off to get married, and thus Sharon, at 14, becomes Harlan’s wife, companion, caretaker and fellow traveler. Without a plan, the two set off riding the rails, joining the other hobos and the wave of history that produced Hoovervilles and outlaws, taking their chances with starvation, mishap and the vicious railroad bulls.

The two journey in a wide, cinematic loop, a “figure eight,” the symbol of eternity, going north and south, east and west, with Oklahoma at the center. Sharon’s hope to rejoin her family is much of her motivation to stay on the move. Harlan’s motives are different, harder to articulate and deeper. He searches for a mystical old bum named Profit, with whom he traveled for a time. Harlan’s time with Profit seemed to have shaped him into something more, and perhaps less, than human: he is unable to care for his wife or himself; yet he becomes the deep song of the nation, spilling the sufferings, the blame and also the hope into the air—and the people’s psyche—with his harmonica. The song comes from an eternal source through Harlan; comes, as Profit says, when “God enters us through sin, through the holes we cut in our souls by our own imperfection.” Harlan is often rendered inarticulate by the “silent web,” the “great clotted fullness” in his throat, and the only way he can speak is to sing, to strangers and crowds and bums and mothers and kids.

Sharon, on the other hand, whose father was a preacher, has a clear and uncomplicated notion of sin and its consequences. She tethers Harlan to earth in much the same way Oklahoma tethers the pair to its wind-driven dry landscape. As they travel about, meeting kind people who help them, and cruel people who don’t, the voice of Profit posits the notion that the ratio of good and bad people is about 60-40. Sharon goes on to take the measure of this in herself and in her travels. In the end, she says, after all that happens to the pair—and it’s plenty—and all the fortunes and (mostly) misfortunes of the people that they meet, “My husband was a tender-hearted man.” She sees his failings, too—for example, how he means to atone for what he has stolen and taken from others, but he’ll leave some sort of empty object, just a symbol, without understanding the sacrifice involved in true atonement.

As in her other books, Askew deals with themes of sin, greed, choice, evil, goodness, atonement, love and mercy. As in her other books, Harlan represents and carries within him a larger force than he can control. Harpsong begins with characters whose voices are so authentic and perfectly tuned you will hear them in your sleep. It begins with landscape—the Oklahoma landscape that is encompassed, says Askew, by “land, wind, the force of sky and distance, the thickly wooded hills.” Her Oklahoma characters are a distillation of the American character, says Askew, for the state is uniquely placed in the “gut” of the nation to draw upon Southern, Western, Midwestern and Southwestern influences. The town of Cookson where the story begins is a real Oklahoma town, whose original streets and buildings ended up under the Tenkiller Reservoir, and this sort of nuance is typical of Askew’s storytelling prowess, where the details add up in a way to create whole cloth. Harlan sang the song of the people with his harp; he sang his own song upon the stones of the earth; and all the songs were covered up eventually by rock and water.

Askew uncovers them, and by doing so, she enhances our understanding of our history, our legends and myths, and our difficult landscapes. She illuminates what we’ve lost, what we stand to gain, the “paltriness of our sin” as compared to God’s mystery, as Harlan might put it. In the end, Harpsong is a love story. It tells about the love between two people; the love of landscape, mountains, rivers and forests; the love Americans harbor—sometimes wrongheadedly—for their ideals and mythology. The book is a love song to the American voice and the American perspective; and ultimately it is about the love that is involved—with all the accompanying stark failings and supreme acts of kindness—in being fully human.
--Mary Greene


When Rilla Askew finished reading from the opening pages of her novel Harpsong at last month's Centennial Voices event, my wife turned to me and said, "OK. I'm hooked."

She wasn't the only one, to be sure. Askew is a writer whose prose almost begs to be read out loud. It's an incantatory mix of down-home directness and high-flying poetry, the sound of plain-spoken people whose voices have been steeped in the language of the King James Bible.

It is a fictional voice that has earned Askew deserved comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. And it finds maybe its best expression in Harpsong.

This novel, Askew's third, is a relatively short novel -- less than 250 pages -- but it is dense with incident and idea, and packed full of distinct, distinctive voices.

It's also an answer to Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that, for better or worse, has defined Oklahoma in the eyes of many. Steinbeck's book is about people who abandoned all hope and set out in pursuit of an earthly paradise that never was.

Harpsong, on the other hand, is about the people who stayed -- who held on to some shred of hope, those who struggled to remain decent in spite of overwhelming hardships, and how they coped with those who took advantage of troubles for their own gain.

It is, in other words, a novel about faith -- not simply religious faith, although that is a large part of, but faith in people, in the land, in the need and even comfort that can be found simply in keeping on.

And it is told through a quartet of voices, all trying to tell the story of Harlan Singer, the enigmatic figure at the novel's heart.

The primary voice is that of Sharon, who catches her first sight of Singer one morning in May 1931, as he came walking along the road out of Cookson.

He charms his way into the family with his way of playing the harmonica, and offers to stay and help out while Sharon's father is out making his rounds as a traveling preacher.

It isn't long before Singer has bewitched the 14-year-old Sharon, and they run off to Muskogee to get married. Then the two set off on the roads -- rail, asphalt and dirt -- of Oklahoma in search of a fellow named Profit, to whom Singer owes some great, if unspoken, debt.

This quest takes them on a kind of figure-eight path through Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, where a run-in with railroad thugs results in Singer being nearly beaten to death.

Food is always scarce, money is something only a few people have and acts of kindness are rare enough that when the couple does receive a bite to eat or a place to stay, Sharon can't quite summon up the words or feelings to express her thanks.

All she can do is follow her husband, and gauge how he is by the almost unearthly music he is able to draw from the 10 reeds in the tin and wood harmonica that is never far from Singer's lips.

It's magical, what Singer can do with a harmonica: play all sorts of tunes, from dances to hymns; imitate almost any sound from tree frog to train whistle; and conjure up emotions that even the people listening to him don't recognize they possess.

That's because Singer is after some sort of truth, a way of making the Bible he's read and had recited to him have meaning in a world that has lost its hope.

"A hopeless man don't ask for forgiveness, on account of a hopeless man don't believe in it," Singer says. "He don't care. About that or anything else. He don't see the point in living. That's a kick in God's teeth, innit?"

The forgiveness that Singer seeks goes back to a dim point in his past -- a moment of cowardice that haunts him. And his efforts to find that forgiveness, to pay those debts, gets him and Sharon into situations that start people talking.

This is another voice in the story, called "folksay," where the facts about Harlan Singer's life get blown into myth -- "depending on how far back in the bo-jacks you go, you'll hear all kind of stories." You'll also hear the stories of those who remained in Oklahoma, either circling the state in hopes of the return of better times, or staying put where they had always been, struggled to survive the Depression.

"Truth is," one "folksay" passage goes, "some left, but most stayed, dumb as lambs to the slaughter maybe, but we were determined to live with the devil we knew."

We hear Harlan's voice only once, near the end, but we are privy to his thoughts in a series of passages labeled "deepsong" -- impressionistic vignettes that take on a deeper, more tragic dimension as Harpsong moves to its conclusion.

Askew's novel is officially Volume One of the University of Oklahoma Press' "Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers" series, although it is the third volume to be published. But it certainly deserves pride of place at the head of the list. It is a story that moves with the ease and inevitability of a country stream, and lingers in the mind like a melody.
--James D. Watts Jr.


A young man, his teenaged wife and his harmonica crisscross the Depression-era Southwest in Askew's mournful, compelling, religion-infused third novel.

Sharon Thompson may be only 14, but as soon as mysterious stranger Harlan Singer appears in her small town of Cookson, Okla., she knows they are destined to mate. The self-named Harlan may be part Cherokee, but what's for sure is his genius with the harmonica, or harp-he's a veritable Pied Piper. He so charms Sharon's dirt-poor parents (her Daddy is a traveling preacher) that they give him work. But work doesn't agree with Harlan. After an almighty ruckus, Harlan whisks Sharon away to Muskogee, where they marry; they honeymoon atop a freight car, for Harlan has been riding the rails for years; Sharon, "ignorant as pudding," realizes she doesn't know her husband at all. Still, she shows spirit as they navigate the hobo jungles and run from the bulls, i.e., railroad detectives. Harlan is searching for Profit, his spiritual mentor, a smelly old hobo who once saved his life, but his search is as hopeless as Sharon's for her family, since on their return to Cookson, her home is deserted; bank foreclosures have doomed the town. The past is unrecoverable; that is one of the novel's themes, along with responsibility to our fellow man, also addressed in Askew's Fire in Beulah (2001). Harlan, as retribution, robs the local bank and becomes the stuff of legend, though he later returns the money, for he and Sharon are religious folks, caught in a cycle of sin and the quest for redemption. Askew skillfully weaves their personal dramas (a miscarriage, Harlan's fearsome beating by the bulls) with the communal hardships of the Depression; through it all floats the sound of Harlan's harmonica, mesmerizing his listeners.