Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Book cover. Click to enlarge.

Whose Names Are Unknown (2004)

The Lost Traveler (1958, 1995)

An Owl on Every Post (1970, 1994)

Cry of the Tinamou (1997)

Told in the Seed (1998)













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Random House accepted Whose Names Are Unknown for publication in 1939, then rescinded the contract when Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath appeared the same year to great acclaim. There was not sufficient readership potential, explained Random House editor Bennett Cerf, to justify two novels on a similar topic. While both novels deal with the Dust Bowl exodus, they in fact contrast quite sharply in their interpretation of the tragic events of dispossession and refugee status in the 1930s. Steinbeck created a fable-like novel that uses structurally figurative means to represent the condition of the "Okies." "They must be an over-essence of people," he wrote in his notes while preparing the novel. Whose Names Are Unknown, on the other hand, hews close to testimonial witnessing, revealing an immediate, intimate world of human relationships. Her figures are people we might have known as neighbors; indeed, in another time and place, we might have shared with them a similar destiny.

Babb's novel traces the fateful odyssey of the Dunne and Starwood families, uprooted from their homes in the Oklahoma Panhandle during the drought years of the 1930s and forced to seek work in California's agricultural valleys. It is a powerful tale of adversity, stoic courage, and dry humor that, in stripping life to its essential constituents of survival and endurance, might be told of every natural or man-made calamity—hurricane, earthquake, war, and plague.

Based on field notes from her work in 1938-1939 with Tom Collins of the Farm Security Administration and her own early experience on the High Plains, Whose Names Are Unknown reveals Babb's intimate knowledge of the ecological hazards and human drama of a people lured to the central High Plains by the prospect of free land and improved farming methods. Unable to sustain prolonged droughts and wildly cyclic crop prices, the desperate families flee to California's agricultural valleys, where they encounter an abusive labor system that heartlessly exploits them. The title is taken from the corporate farm eviction notices to workers housed temporarily in company-owned shacks once the harvest was done.

Babb's journalist's incisive eye for detail and deep compassion for human suffering enabled her to focus on the emotional lives of the dispossessed "Okies" while giving the reader access to the everyday intimate circumstances of individuals struggling to survive. A dramatic portrayal of a people under extreme duress, Babb's novel shows how by re-creating rudimentary democratic practices the refugees restructure their lives as a unified community, resistingNext page