Thursday, October 24, 2013

Whose Names are Unknown by Sanora Babb

When I watched the PBS series about the Dust Bowl earlier this year, I learned that a young journalist named Sanora Babb, herself an Oklahoma girl who later worked in California, had written a novel about the Dust Bowl and the Okies who went to California to work in the fields.  Her book had been accepted by Random House and editor Bennett Cerf had even given her an advance.  But before her words hit the "published" page, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath hit the market, becoming such a success that Cerf told Babb that there was no need for two books telling the same story.

Although Babb went on to be a successful writer, Whose Names are Unknown remained unpublished until recently.  There is some speculation that when Babb shared some of her research with someone from one of the migrant camps who wanted to share her notes with another writer who was doing research that her notes ended up being used by Steinbeck.  There is no proof of that, but the mystery was enough to tweak my interest and I sought out Babb's book.  The Grapes of Wrath has always been a favorite of mine, and I have taught the book to high school juniors/seniors.

There are not many copies of Whose Names are Unknown in the library system so I had to wait several months until I finally got a copy.  Having just finished the book, I am still processing her powerful look at those desperate years.  I believe Steinbeck is the better story teller, but that difference is also what makes her book so powerful.  Perhaps it is because I've read GOW several times, or perhaps it is the alternating chapters of "universal" narration between the chapters about the Joads, but I've always felt the Joads were fictional --- representations of the Okies.  With Babb's writings, it was easier to see the people as real.  This was especially true in the early chapters as the Dunne family fight so hard to keep their farm and grow a successful crop.  With historical footage from the PBS series fresh in my mind, I could picture the dust storms, hear the dust pneumonia coughs, and visualize the faltering cattle and small children. Babb's characters could easily have stepped into that PBS documentary and told their stories, they were so similar to the memories of Dust Bowl survivors.  Later,  Babb's narration of the migrant camps and the struggle to find paying work is clearly accurate and informational.  Clearly she had visited these camps and knew what was happening.  But it is here, that Steinbeck's story telling weaves a  more entertaining story that mercilessly pits the reader against starvation poverty of the Okies.  I don't think anyone can forget the last chapters of GOW or the final scenes of the movie version.   Both books present strong views of humanity and strength fighting when they should be totally downtrodden by starvation and the greed of others.  In a way, I wish that Babb's book would have been published at the time of Steinbeck's.  Today we often have books with similar topics and plots, and readers decide which book  is the favorite.  Too bad Sanora Babb did not have that opportunity.

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