Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Up to the years immediately preceding World War I, when large tracts of rangeland were opened to homesteading, the High Plains were fenceless grasslands valued by cattle ranchers and Indian buffalo hunters. Treeless and semi-arid, these marginal lands, called "The Great American Desert" by early explorers, had long been viewed as unsuitable for agriculture. New dry farming techniques, however, offered settlers the expectation of return from the land, and until long periods of drought set in, this proved to be true. High winds whip across the broad plateau, summers are hot and dry, and winters fierce with blizzards. In the early years of settlement neighbors lived miles away and schools were few or non-existent. Water was unavailable for crops or gardens and few could afford the deep wells tapping the Ogallala aquifer. A few "bad years" and most settlers were "starved or dusted out." Such was the land that greeted Sanora Babb's family, who moved to a dugout homesteaded by Sanora's grandfather in Baca County (southeastern Colorado).

In writing her fictionalized memoir, Babb recalled her family's fragile existence on the High Plains from the double perspective of adult and child, the one aware of the deadly odds set by nature, the other discovering a world of wonder and mystery in all living things. Both lyrical evocation and ecological meditation, Owl explores the delicate balance between habitat and landscape on the High Plains.

Ralph Ellison praised Babb's novel-memoir for its "Thought-provoking description of the mystery, wonder and poetry of growing up in a pioneering environment. A vivid restoration of an important phase of American history." Ray Bradbury enjoyed its "quiet humor, and a great all-encompassing love for a land and her people" and William Saroyan called it "An enchanting true story of a childhood on the plains." Reviewers of the English edition liked Owl for its essentially American qualities. A reviewer for The Pretoria News (South Africa) wrote enthusiastically: "The author has achieved a small miracle with this book for she has turned hunger, poverty, loneliness and depression into incomparable beauty by the magic of her writing." The London Sunday Telegraph called it "a quietly beautiful tale, haunted by the harsh splendor of the plains." "The days of the sodbusters, the sod houses and the tough, independent dry land farmers have rarely been so well chronicled," wrote Newsday.Next page