Sanora Babb: The Unsung Hero of the Dust Bowl Novel

Sanora Babb, California, 1938

Happy birthday to the one and only Sanora Babb! Today we are celebrating the beautiful life of this beloved author. 

Sanora Babb was an American author, screenwriter, and journalist who was born in Oklahoma, United States. Sanora is best known for her works of fiction, including her acclaimed novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which was published posthumously in 2004. She was also a prolific journalist and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940s.

Sanora was born into a farming family in Oklahoma and spent her early years working on the family farm. Poet and FF2 contributor Iris Dunkle traveled on a road trip to create a biography of Sanora’s life, hoping to capture Sanora in a way that others had not done before. 

In Oklahoma, Sanora spent a lot of her time on the Otoe Reservation. Iris describes: “The road that exists today is not the same as the roads and trails Sanora would ride her pony, the pony given to her by Chief Black Hawk. She would ride bareback, clinging to his mane through the tall singing grass to the safety she found on the Otoe reservation. As she remembered in a letter, ‘[on the reservation] I was very happy. There was much violence at home.’ Sanora’s father Walter had not wanted children. So, when Walter abused her mother Jennie, young Sanora sought refuge with the Otoe people.”

Sanora’s writing career took off when she was hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. The FSA was a federal agency that was created to help struggling farmers during the Depression by providing them with loans and other forms of assistance. Sanora was hired to document the lives of these farmers and their families. She spent several years traveling throughout California, interviewing and photographing the people she met. 

Sanora’s experiences with the FSA became the inspiration for much of her writing. She wrote several novels, including The Lost Traveler, which was published in 1958, and An Owl on Every Post, which was published in 1971. However, it was her novel Whose Names Are Unknown, which was written in 1939, that is considered her masterpiece. 

Whose Names Are Unknown is a powerful and moving account of the struggles of a family of Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. The novel is based on Sanora’s experiences with the FSA and is a stark and honest portrayal of the hardships faced by farmers during this time. The book was initially set to be published in 1940, but was pulled from publication after John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” was released, as publishers felt that there could not be two novels about the subject out at once. 

Iris Dunkle found a personal affront in the erasure of Sanora’s novel; Iris’s grandmother, who grew up during the Dust Bowl, “hated The Grapes of Wrath because she felt it didn’t tell the story of our people. She said it made us look simple and like victims and she didn’t care for his account.” Sanora’s novel, on the other hand, “showcases the multicultural and multiethnic environment of California during this era and tells the story of the Dust Bowl through the experiences of women. In her novel, women have agency. They stand up against the atrocities they are faced with, and they make it known that they work as hard as men.”

Though Whose Names Are Unknown was published over sixty years after it was written, it has now been widely praised by critics and readers alike.

Throughout her career, Sanora was an outspoken advocate for social justice and equality. She was involved in various political and social movements, including the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. She was also a mentor to many young writers, including the poet and novelist Maya Angelou.

Viewing Sanora through the loving eyes of Iris shows just how wonderful and powerful of a person she was. Sanora had a deep impact on many people: those who were lucky enough to know her while she was here, and those who read her novels and who learn about her now, keeping her story alive. 

© Julia Lasker (4/21/2023) FF2 Media


Read part 1 of Iris Dunkle’s reflections on her road trip to write Sanora’s biography.

Read part 2

Read part 3.

Read part 4.

Read Iris’s review of Whose Names Are Unknown.


Featured photo: Sanora Babb in California (1938). Photograph used with permission from Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas, Austin, courtesy of Joanne Dearcopp. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: An Owl on Every Post, female author, Iris Dunkle, Sanora Babb, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lost Traveler, Whose Names Are Unknown

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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