Customer Review

84 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than The Grapes of Wrath?, May 1, 2004
This review is from: Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel (Hardcover)
"To John Doe and Mary Doe whose True Names are Unknown."
-Legal Eviction Notice, 1930s
This is one of the best novels I have ever read about Oklahoma Panhandle farmers during the 1930s. I think is is as good as, perhaps better than, The Grapes of Wrath. I realize that is a strong statement coming from a lowly reviewer but I truly believe it to be that good.
The history of the author and the story of why it has taken sixty-five years for the book to be published are remarkable. Babb was born in 1907 in Oklahoma Territory. She spent her early childhood moving from place to place with her family and worked as a printer's devil, a small town reporter, a farm magazine writer, and a rural schoolteacher. In 1929, at the age of twenty-two, she moved to Los Angeles to become an AP reporter. In 1938 she began work as a volunteer for the Farm Security Administration in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys. She assisted in organizing casmps for the disposed farmers that streamed into the area; many from cities and towns near the Oklahoma Panhandle where she grew up. She kept a diary of her experiences observing and assisting "...the farmers who were done dirty" and ultimately prepared a manuscript that was to become this novel. In 1939 she sent four manuscript chapters to Random House publishers. The cofounder of Random House, Bennett Cerf, read the chapters and sent Babb a check and an offer to come to New York to complete the novel. She accepted and completed the book, which Cerf intended to publish. However, before it was ready for publication The Grapes of Wrath was published and the rest is history. Cerf, as well as numerous other publishers, declined to publish a novel to compete with Steinbeck's popular work and the manuscript resided in a drawer until this publication by the University of Oklahoma Press.
The book is the story of Julia and Milt Dunne and a small group of fellow farmers from Cimarron County, Oklahoma, struggling to survive the drought and depression during the 1930s and their subsequent migration to California. The story is unique in that it focuses on the the daily efforts of hardworking, proud and basically honest people that hoped for a hand up rather than a hand out: "No disgrace to be poor, but cussed unhandy. None of us people wants relief if we could get work. God knows, a man could earn more with working and be a lot happier. We've seen hundreds of people in the last few months and ain't a one of 'em wouldn't rather work his way, and trying hard to do it." By focusing on the lives of common, average folks struggling to survive in a hostile environment, Babb is able to portray the ever present generosity, compassion, decency and basic humanity of the characters in a story that transcends the sometimes bigger picture of the environmental disaster of the dust storms or the mercenary practices of the banks and units of government that failed what many characterize as the salt of the earth...the depression-era farmers. From the dust bowl of Cimarron County in western Oklahoma to the migrant labor camps of California, this book introduces the reader to simple, hardworking characters that Prof. Lawrence R. Rodgers notes, "capturs the moment-by-moment ordinariness, even drabness, of poverty and labor."
The book puts a human face on the "Okies" and others that faced economic and social disaster and managed to retain their humanness, faith, and inner dignity. Better that The Grapes of Wrath? I think so but you be the judge.
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Initial post: Aug 31, 2014 7:53:00 PM PDT
Excellent review. I'm watching " The Dust Bowl" on Ch. 21 WLIW in NYC. & of course they mentioned Sonora Babb. Love the History you have written. Thank you for the enlightment.WILL DEFINETLY purchase this book & hopefully the DVD on the Dust Bowl.
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Location: Tulsa, OK United States

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