Books, Dream, Opinion, Writing

A Dream in the Dust

Today, while I edited, my husband was watching a documentary on the North American ecological disaster of the 1930s known as the Dust Bowl. I mostly blocked it out, but the mention of a woman writer caught my attention.

A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas ...
A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas in 1935. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her name was Sanora Babb. In 1938 she worked for the Farm Security Administration in California and kept meticulous notes on her conversations with Dust Bowl migrants. She wrote a novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, based on those notes. And Random House was planning to publish it. But her FSA supervisor, Tom Collins, had shared her notes with another writer who then wrote and published his novel first. We’re talking about John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath (dedicated to Tom Collins). Random House shelved Babb’s novel and it wasn’t published until 2004, a year before she died.

I’m sure there’s more to this story. I haven’t read Babb’s book, or even heard of it before today, so possibly Steinbeck did her notes far more justice than she did. Maybe he didn’t know she had written, or was writing, a novel based on them. But still. She had a dream. She worked hard to fulfill it. Its realization was in her sights. And then … someone else got the glory. That makes me sad.


9 thoughts on “A Dream in the Dust”

  1. Wow. I had no idea. I googled her name and found this obituary from the Boston Globe:

    Despite the bad timing of Steinbeck beating her to the punch with Grapes, it sounded like she led a fascinating life and didn’t let this blow stop her. Everything about her seems interesting and I’m looking forward to reading both Whose Names Are Unknown AND her memoir.

    Thanks – this was really interesting! I guess the moral of the story is to keep on keeping on and KEEP WRITING no matter what.


    1. I agree, Natasha, it does sound like she led a fascinating life. I’m looking forward to reading Whose Names Are Unknown too. Apparently, several others in my town caught that reference when they were watching that documentary yesterday because eleven of them beat me to putting in a reserve in our library system.


  2. Fascinating story. I guess it’s true that there are no new stories to tell as we all draw on real life instances (such as the case of the Dust Bowl) as fodder and backdrop for our stories. It’s only the characters whose eyes we see them through that really ever change.

    That said, I do wonder how many other stories written during (and about) this time-period were buried under the weight of the Steinbeck name? I think the lesson here is write fast and share with no one! LOL


    1. Well, DS, I’m paranoid enough to keep titles to myself for a long while, but my story premises are generally universal. You’re right, there must have been a thousand stores written about Dust Bowl experiences. Steinbeck was just in position to make his famous. In Babb’s case, Collins was her supervisor, so she had no choice but to share her notes with him. 😦


      1. I guess I’ll be in that position one day if some of my fictionalized predictions about society come to fruition. Of course in the event of my latest literary adventure, there wouldn’t be many left to read or acknowledge that fact – nor would philosophy take center stage in the day to day routines of those who survive. Maybe it’s best for all involved that I stay in the position of a theorist instead of an authoritative figure in the world of post-apocalyptic dystopian writers and poets. LOL


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