This particular strong woman is near and dear to my heart, because of her one supposed failure.
Born in 1909 in Red Rock, Oklahoma, when the land was still a territory, Sanora Babb moved frequently as a child. When she was six, her unemployed father moved the family to eastern Colorado to homestead a 320-acre farm, where hundreds of acres were devoted to growing grasses for the making of brooms.
The isolated farm sat on the vast High Plains of Colorado and the family lived in a single room dugout, their home ‘papered’ on the inside with sheets of newspapers. Those pages were Sanora’s first exposure to the world of written stories, and journalism. Using the newspaper sheets, Sanora taught herself how to read.
After repeated crop failures the family moved on, first to Kansas and eventually to the panhandle of Oklahoma. There, Sanora and her sister were finally able to attend school. Although Sanora was eleven when she walked into her first classroom, she later graduated valedictorian of her high school class.
She worked odd jobs after high school while writing on the side, and landed her first journalism job as a cub reporter for the Kansas Garden City Herald. Then in 1929, she moved to Los Angeles and was hired by the Los Angeles Times.
The stock market crash a few months later, plunging the country into the Great Depression. Sanora found herself unemployed and homeless. Undeterred, she found work as a secretary, and she continued to write.
On a trip home to see her mother, Sanora was astounded to see families she had known as prosperous, now waiting on soup lines along with evicted farmers. The visit made her acutely aware of the misery that the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression had thrust upon the people of the Oklahoma.
By 1938, Sanora was back in California and hired as an assistant to Tom Collins, the head of the local Farm Security Administration program. Together they traveled throughout the central California valley talking to migrant workers about federal programs that could offer them assistance. Everywhere they traveled, Sanora took copious notes for a novel she was writing about the Okies experience of surviving the devastation of the Dust Bowl, only to find a system of widespread discrimination in the migrant worker camps.
A year later she sent her manuscript, Whose Names Are Unknown, to Random House, and the editor, Bennett Cerf was so impressed he offered her a publishing contract. Her novel told the story of two Okie families whose lives had been decimated by the Dust Bowl and had packed up all their belongings and headed to California where they hoped to establish new lives. Once in California, they encountered bigotry and hatred and the hellish experience of life in the migrant camps.
Sound familiar? It should. While Sanora was taking notes about the migrant families, her boss Tom Collins was secretly sharing those notes with a friend who was also writing a novel. That friend was John Steinbeck.
Back in New York, Bennett Cerf and Random House were on the verge of publication when Viking Press launched The Grapes of Wrath to immediate success. Bennett Cerf had to make the decision of rescinding Sanora’s contract because he felt that a second novel on the same subject would not sell.
The Grapes of Wrath went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and made John Steinbeck a household name. When asked about his research on the book, Steinbeck said he had made a few visits to the migrant camps with his good friend Tom Collins, and he would be forever grateful for the notes provided to him by Collins. Sanora Babb’s name was never mentioned.
Sanora decided not to attempt another novel but continued to write short stories. She became the common law wife of James Wong Howe, a noted Hollywood cinematographer, but could not legally marry him because of California’s anti-miscegenation laws (marrying a person of another race). Those laws were repealed in 1948 and Sanora formally married James in 1949.
She did go on to write several novels and at the age of 97 her original novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, was published. She died the following year in 2005. Critics have compared The Grapes of Wrath to Whose Names Are Unknown and have ascertained that Sanora’s novel was written with the eye of a true journalist, marrying raw details to unparalleled human compassion for a group of people who defined the true meaning of being an Okie.
Sanora Babb, I hope I did you proud. The Grapes of Wrath will never mean the same to me again.
Thanks to blog follower, Bucky Schriver for Sanora’s name.
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