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Whose Names Are Unknown by Sanora Babb

Whose Names Are Unknown (2004)

by Sanora Babb

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This book closely examines how the events of the dust bowl affects the Dunne family. It starts by showing how they are eking out a living as farmers in the Oklahoma panhandle. They have neighbors who are doing better than them, but then they are doing better than some. Their one room dugout is cramped but they still rejoice in the hope a new baby brings when Mrs. Dunne discovers she is pregnant. But then the drought and storms start to come, Mrs. Dunne loses the baby, and they are forced to think about abandoning their farm just so they can survive. Just like refugees all throughout history, they pack up their car and head west. As they go from camp to camp following the crops that need to be picked, they are mistreated, called names, and cheated over and over again.
This book is a serious look at the hardships of the dust bowl, and as such it is not an easy read. Yet is is a powerful portrayal of those times and the issues faced, and our book group found a lot to talk about after we read it, even though most of us struggled to get through it. ( )
  debs4jc | Apr 4, 2017 |
You may already know the story of Whose Names Are Unknown and its path to publication. If so, you may wish to skip the next paragraph. I'm including it because I found it fascinating. Truly, it's the primary reason I picked this novel up.

In the 1930s, author Sanora Babb was working as a volunteer for the Farm Security Administration in California. She helped in the camps for displaced farmers. Under the recommendation of Tom Collins, the same Collins who served as the primary source for The Grapes of Wrath, Babb began to compile notes about her experience. Twice, she crossed paths with John Steinbeck. Babb went on to write about the workers and the camps in Whose Names Are Unknown. In 1939, she found a publisher for the novel in Random House. All was set. Then The Grapes of Wrath became a sensation. It won the Pulitzer. It won the National Book Award. It was the best selling book of the year. And suddenly, Random House was no longer interested (though they did pay her). In fact, no publisher wanted anything to do with Babb's novel. All knew it would be viewed at best as an anti-climatic follow-up to Steinbeck's novel, at worst a horrible imitation. So Whose Names Are Unknown remained unpublished and unknown until it was picked up by a university press, sixty-five years later, in 2004.

Since its publication, there has been some question as to whether one writer was trying to trying to capitalize off the other's project. Some question as to whether one writer used the other's notes. Personally, I think both were just moved by the situation and had the same great idea at the same time. Unfortunately for Babb, her time came a tad too late.

Undoubtedly, there is quite a bit of similarity between the two novels. Both focus on an Oklahoman family, despite the fact that the Dust Bowl affected other states as well. Both show their journey to California, bouncing around from camp to camp. Both show the desperation of a family being pushed to its limits. While I strongly feel Whose Names Are Unknown stands on its own, I agree with the publisher: at the time, it would not have had the best results.

Yet, Whose Names Are Unknown is not The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, the plots and characters are certainly similar. Even the tone of both pieces, a tone of sadness and protest, was similar. But while Steinbeck moved the Joad family out west as soon as he could, Babb took her time moving the Dunne family. While Steinbeck was much more obvious with his meandering metaphors, Babb stayed primarily focused on the central plot. While Steinbeck unleashed the longest work he'd written up to that point in his life, Babb kept her story incredibly concise. Two sides of the same coin? Yes. But both were stellar in their own regard.

As a long-time Steinbeck fan, I'm quite partial to Steinbeck. That said, Whose Names Are Unknown could've easily earned a place alongside The Grapes of Wrath in my heart, but it did fail on one regard: it was too concise. There are times when the Dunne family seems on the brink of collapse. Then the next chapter they're getting along decently. There's no bridge or explanation. This was particularly noticeable at a point in the story when the family is thrown from their small home with all their possessions. The next chapter, the family is in their kitchen with all their possessions. Was this a new home? The old? What happened? There are a few too many moments such as these that keep an observant reader asking, “what did I miss?” I can't help but wonder if word got out about Steinbeck's upcoming novel, and if there wasn't a rush to finish this one. That would certainly be a logical reason for some of the holes in the story. Even with the holes, however, the reader can surmise what happened in the in-between and not miss too much.

So fellow writers, remember the lesson of Babb and Steinbeck: while you're sitting on your wonderful idea, a muse may be handing your novel to another writer. Not that I think Babb was sitting on her idea, or made any wrong choices in the matter, but it's still a valuable lesson. No, I think the misfortunes of Whose Names Are Unknown can be chalked up to the cosmos or fate or chance or whatever you want to call it. Fortunately, we now have access to this great work, and while it may be too late for the migratory workers of the 1930s, it might be just in time for our current mounting troubles with the climate and worker's rights. Maybe the fates had reason to delay this novel's publication. ( )
  chrisblocker | Sep 16, 2016 |
Took me a really long time to get into this book. Realistic dialogue and characterization are the most important to me when reading. The dialogue in the first half of the book didn't sit with me. I felt the author was speaking to me and not a conversation between characters. The second half of the book the author seemed to get it together and I felt the writing got better. Unfortunately characterization continued to suffer. This could have been any dustbowl family in any book. Grapes of Wrath is by far the better book. ( )
  flippinpages | May 12, 2014 |
Well that was depressing. Misery, starvation, and exploitation. The details about how the drought and dust bowl devastated the midwest were fascinating since I knew very little about that era. But I'm not kidding about this being a miserable read - 200 pages of hardship with not even a glimmer of hope at the end. In fact, it just ends, another day with starving mouths to feed, another penniless day without the prospect of work. No change in the weather, no hope for the future, maybe a spark of salvation in the power of striking workers. Babb obviously captures the desolation of the time but I found her writing a little child-like in places, like it was written by a high school student even though she was in her 30s when she wrote it. Might be better used as a reading assignment in high school history classes. ( )
  sushitori | Apr 24, 2014 |
It has been too long since I read the Grapes of Wrath to remember, aside from the one scene at the end of the woman trying to save the life of an old man. I wish I remembered better to be able to make some comparison with this novel, written by a woman who actually worked with refugee farmers in the Farm Security Administration of California. Her novel was to be published, as of 1939, but then Steinbeck's came out, and the publisher pulled out feeling that the market couldn't support two books on the subject.

I learned of this book during a public television documentary on the dust bowl. I don't remember the details, but, somehow Babb's notes were shared with Steinbeck and led to his novel.

Whose Names are Unknown follows mainly a single family of father, mother, grandfather, and two daughters. it is divided about in half between their life in Oklahoma and their life in California (the grandfather does not go with the rest of the family to California). It is very much a novel of daily life so you are immersed in the details of time and place. It is not a dramatic book, but the drama builds through the accumulation of daily experience and its reflection in the thoughts of the characters. The events are the depression, the drought which lead to dust storms - a result of plowing the prairie, removing the vegetation which held the topsoil in place. You really feel what it is like to live in recurring dust storms that seep into everything and destroy their hopes that this year at last there will be a good harvest.

Then there is the move to California, by the Okies and Arkies, and the response - the way they are viewed, and kept from settling down, and exploited. They are forced into a situation where they have to work for less than it takes to even eat enough. The novel ends with a strike attempt and its aftermath.

With the widening divide between rich and poor, and between rich and everyone else, that is now occurring in this country, I sometimes wonder if it could ever get that bad again, where whole families work, and still do not earn enough to even live, not to live in comfort, or in a settled place, but even to live at all. Perhaps it is already happening for some groups - such as illegal immigrants - or never stopped. I don't know. It is a grim life that Babb's describes. The people with their hopes, fears, loves and dreams are very real in the midst of being dehumanized as "Okies" by the other Californians. ( )
1 vote solla | May 20, 2013 |
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To the people who do the work of the western valleys
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Although the old man had raised a fair crop of broomcorn that summer and the price per ton was better than usual, by the time the year's debts were paid and a little money kept back to send to the mail order houses for winter needs, nothing was left.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0806137126, Paperback)

Sanora Babb’s long-hidden novel Whose Names Are Unknown tells of the High Plains farmers who fled drought and dust storms during the Great Depression. Written with empathy for the farmers’ plight, this powerful narrative is based upon the author’s firsthand experience.

Babb submitted the manuscript for this book to Random House for consideration in 1939. Editor Bennett Cerf planned to publish this “exceptionally fine” novel but when John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath swept the nation, Cerf explained that the market could not support two books on the subject.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:45 -0400)

The poor but proud Dunne family and their friends struggle to survive on the dust-plagued prairies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, but discover bitter disappointment in the orchards and vineyards of the so-called promised land of California.

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