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.
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.