I just finished the novel Whose Names are Unknown by Sanora Babb. It is a novel of the Dust Bowl, of a family who tries to hold on to their farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle, but who ends up needing to go to California in order to survive.
First, I am jealous of the title. I wish I could use it for myself, but even the author was using a quote. An eviction notice for some unknown farmers in Oklahoma. Standing in for so many unknown whose stories are sorta-known-but-not-really from the time period.
I grew up just 70 miles north of Oklahoma, in a place that was almost as badly affected by the Dust Bowl and the Depression as the Panhandle. My maternal grandparents and great-grandparents and many other elders were already there, and I spent my early life traveling all over that area (my dad was from eastern New Mexico, along the western edge of the Dust Bowl area) so I feel quite an interest in and connection to the history and the area.
The novel was written in the 1930’s, but not published until recently since John Steinbeck published his novel of displaced farmers traveling from Oklahoma to California first, and it was thought that there wouldn’t be enough interest in two books about the situation. This is a shame because Americans need to know what happened to those farmers and why and the more books about it the better. Plus, the book captures the Southern High Plains perfectly, and I think people should read and enjoy her descriptions. Although I do appreciate Steinbeck’s work, I think hers is the better book.
It feels like a more intimate novel than The Grapes of Wrath, and I suppose the scale of intimacy was intentional on both authors’ part. Part of that intimacy must come from the fact that Babb was from Oklahoma and ended up working in the migrant camps in California so she lived what the families in her book lived. The introduction of the recently published edition of the book argues for her lean and stark language as if it were somehow a deficiency in her writing, but I think the landscape and the subject matter call for that kind of language We’re not talking about a lush landscape here.
Her descriptions of the landscape are just beautiful and almost my favorite part of the book. So beautiful she made me never want to attempt to describe the Southern High Plains in any of my writing because she had done such a perfect job before me.
Here is a description of a thunderstorm:
“The whole flat world under an angry churning sky was miraculously lighted for a moment. A strange liquid clarity extended to the ends of the earth. Julia saw trees along the creek and animals grazing far away. The bleak farmyards with their stern buildings, scattered sparsely on the plains, stood out in naked lonely desolation. A sly delicate wind was rising. Their dresses moved ever so little. Thunder clapped and boomed” (35).
And her description when the grandpa of the family rises early:
“The door opened into the grey darkness of the prairie, leaving a blade of light on the bare yard. The old man came out making a long shadow, closed the door and stood for a blind moment” (22).
I suppose everyone who lives in a rural area is reminded of the grandeur of Nature every day when they step outside, but I wonder how many other places on earth make people regularly feel the smallness and precariousness of human life. (It’s mostly the sky in the High Plains that makes me feel the smallness of my life–the sky and what comes and doesn’t come from it.) And the feeling that because life is so precarious and small, I feel a preciousness even in small things. (Well, that’s my response whenever I go back to my hometown. Maybe others don’t get that feeling.)
The second half of the novel focuses on the family and a few of their neighbors moving to California and trying to find dignity and work in their new life as farm workers. This is an interesting moment in Labor history in America, and again, I think it’s something all Americans should know about because our current perceptions might not reflect what really happened . (There are other novels that I think every American should read to try to understand our history. The most important is Beloved.)
It’s a slim novel and a quick read. I’d recommend it to anyone really, but especially those interested in American history, the Dust Bowl, the Depression, Oklahoma, farm life, or Labor. And I wish I was still teaching high school so I could order this and introduce it to my students alongside Steinbeck’s work.