Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel

Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel

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Sanora Babb’s long-hidden novel Whose Names Are Unknown tells an intimate story of the High Plains farmers who fled drought dust storms during the Great Depression. Written with empathy for the farmers’ plight, this powerful narrative is based upon the author’s firsthand experience.

This clear-eyed and unsentimental story centers on the fictional Dunne family as they struggle to survive and endure while never losing faith in themselves. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, Milt, Julia, their two little girls, and Milt’s father, Konkie, share a life of cramped circumstances in a one-room dugout with never enough to eat. Yet buried in the drudgery of their everyday life are aspirations, failed dreams, and fleeting moments of hope. The land is their dream.

The Duanne family and the farmers around them fight desperately for the land they love, but the droughts of the thirties force them to abandon their fields. When they join the exodus to the irrigated valleys of California, they discover not the promised land, but an abusive labor system arrayed against destitute immigrants. The system labels all farmers like them as worthless “Okies” and earmarks them for beatings and worse when hardworking men and women, such as Milt and Julia, object to wages so low they can’t possibly feed their children. The informal communal relations these dryland farmers knew on the High Plains gradually coalesce into a shared determination to resist. Realizing that a unified community is their best hope for survival, the Dunnes join with their fellow workers and begin the struggle to improve migrant working conditions through democratic organization and collective protest.

Babb wrote Whose Names are Unknown in the 1930s while working with refugee farmers in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps of California. Originally from the Oklahoma Panhandle are herself, Babb, who had first come to Los Angeles in 1929 as a journalist, joined FSA camp administrator Tom Collins in 1938 to help the uprooted farmers. As Lawrence R. Rodgers notes in his foreword, Babb submitted the manuscript for this book to Random House for consideration in 1939. Editor Bennett Cerf planned to publish this “exceptionally fine” novel but when John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath swept the nation, Cerf explained that the market could not support two books on the subject.

Babb has since shared her manuscript with interested scholars who have deemed it a classic in its own right. In an era when the country was deeply divided on social legislation issues and millions drifted unemployed and homeless, Babb recorded the stories of the people she greatly respected, those “whose names are unknown.” In doing so, she returned to them their identities and dignity, and put a human face on economic disaster and social distress.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806187525
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/20/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 222
Sales rank: 238,787
File size: 651 KB

About the Author

Sanora Babb, born in 1907 in Oklahoma Territory, is the author of five books, as well as numerous essays, short stories, and poems.

Lawrence Rodgers, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Oregon State University, Corvallis, is author of Canaan Bound: The African-American Great Migration Novel.

Read an Excerpt

Whose Names Are Unknown

A Novel

By Sanora Babb


Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8752-5


Although the old man had raised a fair crop of broomcorn that summer and the price per ton was better than usual, by the time the year's debts were paid and a little money kept back to send to the mail order houses for winter needs, nothing was left. This was the way every dry farmer lived from year to year, earning only enough for food and clothes and little enough of these. Good seed must be bought for the next season, and taxes were due. Taxes were a yearlong ogre and, more often than not, the crop did not yield enough to keep them paid up.

Milt Dunne wanted to change crops, but his father, the old man, held back reluctantly. It was better to be safe with a little. Milt had grown up in the corn country, working on farms until he learned the baker's trade. He dreamed then of the wheat country farther west, and when he was older, wandered about in those regions. Now this land lay on the western edge of the wheat country, but many farmers around were trying wheat. Brownell had raised it for years. The average for any crop in this drought country was two out of every four or five years, the rest being outright failures or just enough harvest to get by with pinching.

There was an early freeze and a good snowfall, and Milt wanted to try winter wheat. They could spend the early fall days planting, and during the winter he would have a crop to watch, and a green pasture for the cow and the horses.

The old man finally gave in. Life could not be any harder than it was or money more scarce. It might be a way to keep up a little better with the big farmers who could afford irrigation for alfalfa and who made money raising hogs. Not that he cared about keeping up, but the well-to-do ones made it hard on the poor ones, buying up their land for past-due taxes, and renting it back out to them. Brennermann, just to the north of him, owned thousands of acres he had bought up from farmers who had proved up government land. Brennermann was also a power in the Flatlands Bank, which held the farmers' loans.

When old man Dunne first filed his claim on a half-section of "farmland," he found it to be a piece of flat grassland in the midst of thousands of acres of free range. He broke sod and planted row crops, and the lean range cattle overran his fences and devoured his crop. In the winter when they drifted with the storms, sometimes the cattle came through his fences and hovered about in the slight windbreak of his dugout and barn. Then, as more men filed claims and crops began to appear in the range country, a fence law was voted, and the cattlemen had to keep their herds on their own land. There was a great and angry to-do among the ranchers. Many of them refused to fence for a long time, and on the sparsely settled plains no one enforced the law favoring the farmers.

The old man recalled vividly the first year he raised broomcorn, how he made himself two sturdy hand-wired brooms, one for the dugout and one for sweeping the bare yard around the door. Now he was going to venture winter wheat because his son Milt said there was more money in it.

With the money that had been put away for winter clothes, Milt and three other farmers, Hull, Gaylord, and Starwood, drove to Riding and bought seed. Milt's wife, Julia, wrote to a cousin in Virginia, asking for any old clothes they might give away that winter. In a little while, the cousin sent a box that caused a lot of excitement when it came. It contained a red coat that could be made over for Milt's daughter Lonnie, a pair of leather house slippers with soft pom-poms like puffball weeds (an elegance never worn), an old beaded party dress that perhaps could be traded to one of the Brennermann girls, some worn underwear, and a pair of long silk mesh gloves. Everything but the red coat looked very strange in the little dark house. Milt put the fragile mesh gloves on, tearing them with his chapped hands, and wore them while Julia was getting supper.

"You see," he said, "this is the kind of stuff your relatives give you." He spread his hands on his overalled knees. "Not worth a damn."

"But the coat is mine," Lonnie said. "I'll wear it to town." She ran her hands possessively along the soft bright wool. "I hope the girl didn't die," she added soberly. Lonnie was five, with silky white hair and an inward-looking, almost sullen face, silent and aloof, caring only about Milt.

"What do you get out of this, Myra?" Milt asked his older daughter. Myra was seven, brown-skinned, with an unruly mass of dark curly hair, wild, friendly, and easily hurt, almost a bully like Milt was sometimes.

"I want the box to keep my hen in."

"What hen?"

"Old Pet. I tamed her. She lets me pet her on the nest. Lonnie has tamed Dove."

"You let the hens alone when they're on the nest. They'll hide out and lay."

"She won't. She talks to me, and she drinks water out of a spoon."

"All right then."

Milt squared off with his fists in the lacy gloves and slapped the old man lightly on the side of his head. The old man stood up and struck him back, and the two of them boxed all over the room, knocking over the chair and the boxes, and shaking the small stove filled with fire. The little girls climbed onto the bedrail and watched, Lonnie taking sides with Milt, and Myra with the old man.

"We'll make a lot of money next summer, old man," Milt said when they stopped. He pulled off the gloves and dropped them onto the beaded dress.

The old man was breathing hard. "Nothing risked, nothing gained," he said resignedly, but he was secretly pleased.

"You can get a square meal on that monkey stove, then, Julia." Milt lay down on the big bed and put his feet on the end rail. "If we get a good crop I'll put that land of mine in wheat."

"That land is nothing but a gold brick," the old man said gaily. "It's nothing but high range."

"We'll see," Milt said, seeing the wheat wave on the high plateau of land that was his.


In September the winter wheat was planted. Milt and the old man rose every morning at daybreak. Julia was up before them, building the fire and getting the coffee and oatmeal ready. While they were eating the oatmeal, she fried them each two eggs and gave them thick pieces of the bread she baked one day in the week. There was butter, but not to be used generously or it would not last until the next churning. In the dugout it was still dark, and the men ate by lamplight. When they came up into the yard, the sharp high air of western autumn came into their noses, penetrated their clothes, made them go about their chores briskly. Each morning they felt renewed in themselves, and a clear unknown excitement sprang up in them with the sense of the new season. They looked at the land they had planted the day before, and the land they would plant this day, and they felt a sense of possession growing in them for the piece of earth that was theirs. But these unformed thoughts never came to words. The men spoke of the wheat, of the weather they needed. A freeze. Snow through the winter, to lie on the fields, to sink into the ground below the roots so the young plants could withstand the dry summer days. A little spring rain. No hail. No hot winds. No year would be as certain and perfect as this, but every season the dryland farmers hoped for one thing, feared another, and breathed again in relief if the crop was still safe.

They got up at daybreak and went to bed at dark. The days passed like this, each one so much alike that time broke only at the seasons. The wheat came up and lay like a green carpet over the level prairies. Where miles of short curled buffalo grass separated the farms, the land was gray and dry.

Sunday, Milt and the old man walked over their field, as every other farmer did on that day, watching the new leaves grow, kicking the dry clods apart. Every morning, every night, they looked at the sky to see the coming weather. Then the long cold winter set in, and the wheat acres lay growing under the snow. When the field was uncovered the horses and cows grazed on the wheat.

Late snow melted under the tepid spring sun, the rutted byroads held muddy brown water for days, and the yard was wrinkled deep with wagon tracks and pocked by dog paws and animal hooves. The pure white world of winter-with its noble stillness, its grand and awing beauty, its mighty storms-slipped deftly into a wild and windy spring. Moisture blackened the earth deeply beneath tender green wheat that leaned far over under a lashing wind. The tracked yard hardened into a mask. The old man walking against the wind saw the chickens scratch determinedly on the drying crust of earth, trying to reach the worms below. He watched them brace themselves as their feathers blew backwards, and he spoke softly to himself, "When it comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb."

Then the gusty spring passed into the dry hot days of summer, the wind died into a breeze save for the occasional sandstorm that swept across the plains. The wheat was strong and growing tall. Milt and the old man tended it, walked through it, watched the sky for rain, and waited. Milt was afraid of hot winds. Some days the fear was real and close, when here and there in the field the leaves burned crisp and pale. Great white clouds lay in a clear blue sky and at night they drifted away. Far off, low on the horizon, lightning winked with promise from the dark banks. Sometimes a curtain of rain spread nearer and hope flew into their talk and patience returned. Then suddenly and swiftly when hope was almost gone, clouds blackened the sky, churning and threatening, riding closer on a slight rising wind, perfumed with the fresh sweetness of rain. The men stopped their work and stood in the yard watching for signs of wind or hail. Heat lightning flashed wide and harmless, receded, and the quick forked bolts snapped brilliant and close. Mountainous thunder roiled through the heavens seeming to shake the earth. An ominous quiet cupped a hollow over them. In the strange electric light, objects miles away appeared in dreamlike clarity. Brennermann's tall white house looked like a staid woman in a long white dress. Starwood's simple farmhouse sat clear and bright like a toy that could be held in the hand. Each post in the long fences binding the farms stood out in unreal definition. The dark swooped down like a hawk in the rising crescendo of the storm, and the rain broke and crashed through the charged air, down upon dry and waiting fields. It came down in a heavy drenching flood, and the storm was over. Julia and the little girls, Milt, and the old man stood in the yard after the rain began, then seeing it would be a steady rain, they went into the house, listening happily to the even thudding on the roof. Milt went out often, to look at the clouds and sniff the air for hail, and contented at last with the rain he went to the barn to feed the horses, feeling almost giddy with relief.

The violence and magnificence of storms came again and again during the hot summer months, but when the wheat was gold ripe with very little burned, waving lazily in a warm wind, the heads fat and whole, Milt arranged for the Brownell boys to help him cut and thresh the grain. They came with their tractor, combine, and truck. Milt hauled the grain away from the combine and when he was back, the bin was full again. He looked at the yellow wheat and he felt good. For days the lusty rhythm of the machines hummed over their acres, and the combine laid the field bare to gold stubble and wide lonely reaches again.

This was a good harvest. One or two of the late harvesters were hailed out, but for most the crops were saved. Nothing could keep these new wheat farmers from planting wheat. The big wheat farmers near the state line had long been eyed with envy. Now these smaller farmers tried the crop and succeeded. They tended their row crops, the feed for their stock, but wheat was their crop. They never tired of speculating what they would get the next year and the next, weather willing, prices steady.

The old man paid his taxes. Milt gave Julia money for some clothes for winter-coats, underwear, shoes, stockings. They paid the grocery bill. They gave themselves a few "feasts," and afterward life lapsed back into the same pattern, with little money left over until next harvest. There was not enough that year, or the next, to plant the land Milt had bought fourteen miles away. It lay unfenced and unproductive, eating up taxes. The old man wanted him to sell, but raw land would not bring much, and Milt was sure someday he would improve the place and farm it. In the meantime, a little pasture rent helped pay the tax.


The sound of a motor could be heard in the late summer dusk long before it reached the half-mile stretch of fence along the Dunne farm. The little girls were standing on a box at the window watching the truck. It seemed like a friend, and they felt excited and warm in their hearts for this noisy machine bumping along the road. The lights came on as if the thing was suddenly looking at them, and they jumped a little but resumed their curious watching. The lights came closer, making all the country around them darker and lonelier. Then the truck turned into the gate. The little girls leaped from the box and cried out in fright.

"Mama, it's turning in!" They withdrew together against the wall so that Julia was between them and the door. She was cooking a kettle of potatoes and onions for supper.

"Whoever it is won't eat you," she said, smiling at them, but their faces were tight and curious and they only looked and waited. The lonely years on the farm had made them as shy as cottontails. She studied them a moment through the steam from the kettle. They had grown taller but their bodies were thin and fleet and their skin brown with the sun. It had been two years since their wheat crop, two summers of dust. They were almost eight and ten now but they looked younger.

Voices could be heard mingling with those of the old man and Milt at the barn. In a little while all the footsteps came together on the hard bare yard toward the house, and the screen door opened. They all came down the steps, crowding into the little room. The old man put his head in first and said to Julia, "The Brownell boys."

"Hello, Max. Hello, Pete," she said. She was glad to see them. The old man went over to the little girls and prodded them with his long hard fingers.

"Look at my grandchildren," he said, as if they were people in their own right, and they longed to go forward and say something, to live up to their grandfather Konkie's compliment. "Growing like weeds!" The boys shook hands with the little girls, who looked up quickly, then down, and their hands trembled and felt cold in the big hands of the boys. Myra said hello; Lonnie withdrew her hand politely, unable to squeeze a single word from her tight aching throat. She sat down on the box by the stove. Both girls felt wretched and watched the nice young men when they were talking to the others, hoping they would stay, wishing they would leave. Myra looked at Konkie to see if they had done wrong, but his eyes were kind, proud even, and she sighed and sat down by her sister. When Myra was too young to talk plainly she had named her grandfather Konkie and since then they all called him that at times.

"How did your trees stand the dust this summer?" Julia asked. "I always said I'd like to steal your trees."

"If you plant trees right away and then live here as long as Mom and Dad have, you'll have some too. They dug them up along the creek and set them out around the house," Pete said.

"And watered and coddled them like stray calves," Max added. "Mom said she couldn't live here without trees. She said when she first saw this country and not a tree in sight as far as she could see she thought she'd come to the end of the world. She's worried now because the dust hurts them but they're still alive."

"When the dust stops, now that we have a well ..." said Julia, not finishing, dreaming already of the tall cottonwood trees trembling their shining bright leaves in the wind.

"We had a lot of fun helping with the well, didn't we?" Pete said. "Well drillers are over at Starwoods now. Old man Brennermann finally had to put a well on that place. Starwoods have rented it for years and hauled water five and a half miles. Finally Mrs. Starwood had a showdown with Brennermann. She didn't let him alone till she got that well."

"She's a caution," Julia said, laughing.

"I'd been aiming to get a well for years," the old man said, "and finally we made 'er. Next thing's a house if the dang dust don't blow next summer. Mine's about the only dugout left in this country; everybody else has got an adobe or a rock house. I kind of take to this cement block they're using too, if I can build a stone."

"When we were trying to decide between a well or a house," Julia said, "we took the well so we could have a garden and thought if we'd stood this place so far we could wait another year, and look what happened. No garden this year for the dust even when we got water. But the creek's drying up so I guess it's best we got the well."


Excerpted from Whose Names Are Unknown by Sanora Babb. Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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