Elizabeth Partridge set herself up with a monumentally difficult task when she decided to write an authoritative juvenile biography of the great Woody Guthrie. How to write a story about a man that was simultaneously brilliant and woebegotten? Who spoke out for racial equality, strength among the masses, and freedom while also leaving every family who ever loved him? Partridge has done as good a job as could be done, considering her circumstances. The result is a meticulously researched labor of love that is just as much tribute as it is tell-all. As Pete Seeger himself has said about the work, "The best book about Woody ever written".
Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma to a mother with Huntington's Disease and a father who joined lynch mobs and Klu Klux Klans. Talking about this point in Woody's life, Partridge simultaneously displays all the harsh horrible things Woody had to deal with growing up without actually condemning anyone. In fact, the portions of the text that talk about Charley Guthrie (Woody's father) joining in the persecution of African-Americans aren't related with any commentary at all. It's as if Partridge is working on the assumption that the readers will be able to process these facts and come to their own conclusions, rather than have interpretations rammed down their throat. It is also the first moment the author gives the audience the benefit of the doubt. It is not the last.
Moving on through Woody's life, we see him grow up, loose his parents (one way or another), and join various bands. We also see him beginning to travel all across the country on his own. At last, Woody marries and it becomes clear that he is not exactly prime husband material. Abandoning his wife regularly to travel (sometimes when she's just about to give birth), Woody joins various causes around the country. When Woody and his wife finally break up, her narrative abruptly ends. Patridge has a habit of following the people in Woody's life meticulously right up until the moment Woody breaks off all contact with them. Then, their story ends immediately. We never really learn how Woody's father ended his life. Or what became of Woody's children by his first wife (though an afterword in the back of the text explaining Huntington's Disease explains that all but three of his children died either of the disease or of car accidents). Do we criticize Partridge for her choice or narratives? Or do we accept that she really couldn't continually follow Woody's friends and relatives because of space and narrative issues? I'm inclined towards the latter, though it would have been nice to see a little afterword that explains what became of everyone.
Moving towards Woody's second wife, the war, and his battle with Huntington's, Partridge nicely melds text with social commentary. Woody's acceptance of all people, regardless of color, is especially well done. As he sinks further into Huntington's, and has an affair with a pretty young folk singer, the reader sees how Woody finally loses control. A little more information about the talented Arlo Guthrie (his son) would not be out of place at this point, but this is Woody's story, I suppose. Finally, we read Woody's death. The story ends.
Partridge is to be commended for how interesting this book is. As I read it, my husband continually asked me why this was considered a juvenile book. Apart from being published by a press for young readers, I have to assume it's considered a youth text because its so doggone interesting. The words are a little larger than you'd find in an adult biography. The pictures a little more interesting and consistent. On the whole it's a great read. Most wonderful of all is how well the book has been researched. Partridge includes an Afterword about her own personal connection to the subject, a tribute to the Woody Guthrie Foundation, information on Huntington's Disease, Acknowledgements (in which she mentions her interviews with Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seegar), Source Notes, a Bibliography, an Index, Picture Credits, and Permissions. She is nothing if not extensive.
"This Land Was Made For You and Me" is not the world's most definitive biography written with youth in mind, but it comes pretty darn close. But don't limit it to the kids. Read it yourself. Learn a little more about what made the great man tick. Though it's over-quoted, here's what Woody himself had to say about his music:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood".