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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Whose Names Are Unknown

Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel - Lawrence R. Rodgers, Sanora Babb

You may already know the story of Whose Names Are Unknownand its path to publication. If so, you may wish to skip the next paragraph. I'm including it because I found it fascinating. Truly, it's the primary reason I picked this novel up.

In the 1930s, author Sanora Babb was working as a volunteer for the Farm Security Administration in California. She helped in the camps for displaced farmers. Under the recommendation of Tom Collins, the same Collins who served as the primary source for The Grapes of Wrath, Babb began to compile notes about her experience. Twice, she crossed paths with John Steinbeck. Babb went on to write about the workers and the camps in Whose Names Are Unknown. In 1939, she found a publisher for the novel in Random House. All was set. Then The Grapes of Wrath became a sensation. It won the Pulitzer. It won the National Book Award. It was the best selling book of the year. And suddenly, Random House was no longer interested (though they did pay her). In fact, no publisher wanted anything to do with Babb's novel. All knew it would be viewed at best as an anti-climatic follow-up to Steinbeck's novel, at worst a horrible imitation. So Whose Names Are Unknown remained unpublished and unknown until it was picked up by a university press, sixty-five years later, in 2004.

Since its publication, there has been some question as to whether one writer was trying to trying to capitalize off the other's project. Some question as to whether one writer used the other's notes. Personally, I think both were just moved by the situation and had the same great idea at the same time. Unfortunately for Babb, her time came a tad too late.

Undoubtedly, there is quite a bit of similarity between the two novels. Both focus on an Oklahoman family, despite the fact that the Dust Bowl affected other states as well. Both show their journey to California, bouncing around from camp to camp. Both show the desperation of a family being pushed to its limits. While I strongly feel Whose Names Are Unknown stands on its own, I agree with the publisher: at the time, it would not have had the best results.

Yet, Whose Names Are Unknown is not The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, the plots and characters are certainly similar. Even the tone of both pieces, a tone of sadness and protest, was similar. But while Steinbeck moved the Joad family out west as soon as he could, Babb took her time moving the Dunne family. While Steinbeck was much more obvious with his meandering metaphors, Babb stayed primarily focused on the central plot. While Steinbeck unleashed the longest work he'd written up to that point in his life, Babb kept her story incredibly concise. Two sides of the same coin? Yes. But both were stellar in their own regard.

As a long-time Steinbeck fan, I'm quite partial to Steinbeck. That said, Whose Names Are Unknown could've easily earned a place alongside The Grapes of Wrath in my heart, but it did fail on one regard: it was too concise. There are times when the Dunne family seems on the brink of collapse. Then the next chapter they're getting along decently. There's no bridge or explanation. This was particularly noticeable at a point in the story when the family is thrown from their small home with all their possessions. The next chapter, the family is in their kitchen with all their possessions. Was this a new home? The old? What happened? There are a few too many moments such as these that keep an observant reader asking, “what did I miss?” I can't help but wonder if word got out about Steinbeck's upcoming novel, and if there wasn't a rush to finish this one. That would certainly be a logical reason for some of the holes in the story. Even with the holes, however, the reader can surmise what happened in the in-between and not miss too much.

So fellow writers, remember the lesson of Babb and Steinbeck: while you're sitting on your wonderful idea, a muse may be handing your novel to another writer. Not that I think Babb was sitting on her idea, or made any wrong choices in the matter, but it's still a valuable lesson. No, I think the misfortunes of Whose Names Are Unknown can be chalked up to the cosmos or fate or chance or whatever you want to call it. Fortunately, we now have access to this great work, and while it may be too late for the migratory workers of the 1930s, it might be just in time for our current mounting troubles with the climate and worker's rights. Maybe the fates had reason to delay this novel's publication.