Whose Names Are Unknown
University of Oklahoma Press, February 2006
It’s 1938 and a young talented, adventurous woman from the Oklahoma panhandle lands a job with the Farm Security Administration in California, working with the refugee farmers from her home state. These were the people of the high plains who saw their farms and their lives blown away in the horrendous dust storms of the nineteen thirties. The camps in California were one legacy of the Dust Bowl.
Out of that experience, those associations, Sanora Babb fashioned this novel, a first-hand up-close story with intense empathy and understanding for the people. The novel has an interesting and unfortunate history. In 1939 the author submitted her manuscript to a New York publisher, Random House. The publisher’s editor, Bennett Cerf, called the novel an exceptionally fine piece of work and planned to publish it. A few months later, publication was halted in the face of the huge success of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Sanora Babb went on to a strong literary career, authoring five books and numerous shorter pieces published in the top literary magazines of the Twentieth Century. Now finally, sixty-five years late, this moving, intimate novel is seeing daylight. Is it as good or better than Steinbeck’s? Read it for yourself and judge. This is no grand pronouncement to illuminate the scope of what we know as the Dust Bowl Years. Whose Names are Unknown looks poverty and deprivation in the face and deals with the lives and deaths of those most materially affected.
Babb’s writing is clean, she wastes no words and the narrative voice brings her fascinating characters to the pages in a way that will remain with the reader for some time. This is truly a novel to savor.