Sanora Babb and Ken Burn’s PBS “Dust Bowl”
Several persons have asked if I’m related to the Sanora Babb featured in Ken Burn’s recent PBS “Dust Bowl” documentary. After reading her memoir, An Owl on Every Post, years ago, I was determined to meet the author of this wonderful childhood family story. We are distant cousins, and I was fortunate to get to know her in the last years of her life before she died in 2005 at the age of 98. I quickly fell in love with her, influenced no doubt because she looked like and reminded me of the Babb aunts whom I lived with in my early childhood. I miss her.
Sanora’s life story and her novel about the Dust Bowl victims, Whose Names Are Unknown, are part of the Ken Burns documentary. In it, he tells how she wrote her novel in the late 30s while helping Tom Collins set up the FSA migrant camps in California, but Random House reneged on their contract because a similar book, The Grapes of Wrath, had just been published. Her novel of the Dust Bowl and its devastating effects on farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas, where she was born and lived until she went to Los Angeles in 1929, reflects her personal experiences there and in the camps of California. Critics note the book’s authenticity, but more important for us readers are the compelling characters she brings to life.
She arrived in LA, incidentally, on the day the stock market crashed. The job she had taken with the Associated Press evaporated, and homeless she had to live for a while in Jefferson Park. She said the LA police checked the park at night to be sure the “campers,” many of whom were women, were safe. That’s not the picture of LA police we have today.
Through Sanora I got to know her long-time friend and literary executor, Joanne Dearcopp, whose personal mission is to gain wider recognition of Sanora’s work. Joanne is organizing the re-publication of her out-of-print works and seeking a producer for a script of Whose Names Are Unknown.
Recently republished, with a new Foreword by Pulitzer Prize author William Kennedy, is An Owl on Every Post, Sanora’s beautifully written memoir of her life as a child in Baca County, Colorado. There she lived in a dugout with her parents and grandfather for a couple of years during their failed efforts to raise broomcorn. Being republished this fall is her autobiographical novel, The Lost Traveler, of her adolescent years when her father was a small-town gambler.
Sanora wrote five books as well as essays, short stories and poems published in literary magazines alongside the work of Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, William Saroyan, Katherine Anne Porter, and Ernest Hemingway. For more background see her website, a web exhibition with her sister Dorothy’s photos in the camps, and a recent article “Rediscovering a National Treasure” in Foreword Reviews. The picture at the beginning of this post is Sanora in the California worker fields in the 1930s.