Whose Names are Unknown
by Sanora Babb
Category: Fiction / Historical
222 pages; ISBN: 0-8061-3579-4
Rating: 9/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Coletta Ollerer
Sanora Babb wrote this novel about dust storms and their consequences in Oklahoma in the 30s and it was being readied for publication when Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath made its entrance onto the literary scene. Publication was canceled at that time but it has been published recently and we are the beneficiaries. “As a novelist, her first-observer-participant in California migrant camps is unrivaled. A woman writing about migration, she sets her representation of the experience in domestic terms -- as a challenge to creating a sustainable family and community -- and thus departs from the more politicized narratives.” (p xii)
We meet Milt and Julia, along with their two girls, Myra and Lonnie. They have moved into the small dugout one room house of Milt’s father in Oklahoma hoping to improve their lives. They are making some headway until the dust storms start. “She stood beside him and they watched the high moving wall of dust spread from east to west in a semicircle that rose into the sky and bent over at its crest like a terrible mountainous wave about to plunge down upon them.” (p 77)
Others in the area find themselves in immense debt to the storekeepers and bankers and ultimately some feel the only thing to do is go to California where rumor says farm work may be found. Milt and Julia are among them. Milt finds someone who will trade a car for a small plot of his land and the family sets off. A neighbor, Mrs Starwood along with her three children and Frieda, the daughter of a local banker, follow in Starwood’s truck.
In California they find work along with hundreds of other `Oakies’ who are exploited by large land owners and their managers. We imagine ourselves taken into their crowded tents and find ourselves bumping into beds and boxes and seating ourselves around an old table for meals while the overflow sits on beds with plates in laps. At one time Milt and Julia, their two girls, Mrs Starwood and her three children and Frieda share a small one room house because their income requires they do so in order to meet expenses. They feel dehumanized. Others in their `work’ camps feel the same but they hesitate to complain because they prefer their small earnings to starvation. Finally, even this consideration is thought unworthy in the face of the loss of their human dignity. The workers set out to organize a strike but must be careful because some of their number are secret agents for the landowners. “. . . but by the time they were supposed to be in the field, they were all ready. . . . Men and women sat down all along the field, and across the huge square of cotton . . . .The fields felt suddenly and quietly deserted.” (p189)
This story brings the reader into the reality of poverty with its attendant hunger, privation, frustration and hopelessness. Sanora Babb’s first hand experience gives the reader an authentic passport into a life most of us couldn’t even imagine. It is a trip we won’t soon forget.
Buy Whose Names are Unknown at amazon.co.uk
Buy Whose Names are Unknown at amazon.com