Whose Names are Unknown by Sanora Babb tells the story of the Dunne family, their struggle to survive the drought and dust storms of the 1930s, and their exodus to California.
Like thousands before them, the Dunnes accepted the government’s offer of 320 acres on condition that they “prove up” the land. Somehow they must earn enough money to survive for five years, build some kind of domicile, and improve the land. How could they do that in a place where droughts were common and winds nearly constant? The answer was to grow whatever crops the land would support, crops for which there was a market. Wheat. And to watch the sky, hoping for rain.
The family, Milt and Julia, their two daughters, and Milt’s father, Konkie, lived in a dugout, partially below ground, and they yearned for a crop that would allow them to improve their conditions, build a real house, put some money away to help them get through the bad years. It was not to be. Like Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family, they set out for California. Conditions there were even worse.
Sanora Babb, who had grown up in the Kansas/Oklahoma region known as the Dust Bowl, was working for the Farm Security Administration in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys in 1938. Her job was to help set up migrant camps for farmers arriving from the area where her family still lived. She listened to their stories and she wrote them down. Among the notes she kept was a letter from her mother describing what it was like to live in western Kansas during the dust storms. Babb’s mother told of children who lost their way in the dust storms, dust that was “like great clouds of black smoke from a fire,”eating “potato soup standing up, (the chairs and benches) too dirty to sit,” taking dirt out of their house in buckets… “Dust,” she concluded, “I am sick of writing about it.” In Whose Names are Unknown, Babb reproduces the letter almost word for word.
Dust pneumonia killed livestock and people alike, yet the homesteaders never lost hope. On clear days they looked at the sky and their thoughts turned to the future. “If this keeps on we will try to get the ground in shape for planting.”
Babb showed her notes to a friend who showed them to a young writer who was also gathering material for a book. His name was John Steinbeck. Babb never knew if Steinbeck read her notes or not.
In the spring of 1939 Babb sent four chapters of her novel to Random House. Against all odds, the manuscript found its way out of the “slush pile” into the hands of Bennett Cerf, editor and co-founder of the publishing house. He loved what he read. He sent her a check along with a request that she come to New York to complete the novel.
That summer, Viking Press released John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath, and it was an instant success. The book sold as many as 10,000 copies a week and remained on the best-seller list for a year. Cerf reluctantly cancelled publication of Babb’s book. They’re too much alike, he said. “… another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax,” he wrote her.
Sanora Babb waited sixty-five years before her book was finally published. Reference to Whose Names are Unknown in the recent Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl has given it new life. Yet Babb’s novel stands alone in one important way: she is entirely sympathetic to the men and women who were caught up in this environmental disaster.
In the Burns documentary there is a subtle attitude of scorn for the farmers. They might have been hard-working, but they should never have plowed up the prairie. They should have had better sense. They were greedy. Rather than follow the contours of the land, they plowed in straight lines. If a crop failed, they planted a larger crop the following year.
Babb has a different perspective. With the offer of free land, the Homestead Act encouraged poor people to settle on land that was marginal, at best, suitable only for dryland farming, difficult to irrigate. When their crops failed, banks were quick to foreclose. California’s corporate landowners treated the “Okies” with a harshness and a heartlessness that is hard to imagine.
Through her portrayal of the downtrodden in society, Sanora Babb offers hope that the mighty will be dislodged, and the poor will ultimately rise up.