I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Dust Bowl,” the latest documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns that was initially broadcast this past November on PBS. The series chronicles the environmental catastrophe that swept through the Great Plains during the 1930s. Farmlands were destroyed by drought as massive, deadly dust storms enveloped the plains, reducing the grasslands to barren deserts. It is considered the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
In part of his film, Burns follows the journeys of Sanora Babb, a reporter who grew up in the Great Plains and later moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of working for a big-city newspaper. After the stock market crash effectively ended her career dreams, Babb would return to her hometown in 1934 during the height of the drought and dust storms. She recorded much of the destruction she witnessed while in the Great Plains. Returning to California in 1938 to work for the Farm Security Administration, Babb helped many of the refugees who migrated from the regions hit by the Dust Bowl. She continued to document her experiences with the hopes of publishing a novel about the Dust Bowl refugees she encountered.
Babb completed her manuscript in 1939; however, publishers refused to print her novel because a book covering the same subject had already been published. The book they are referring to: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year). Babb would go on to write other publications throughout her life based upon her childhood on the southern Plains. It wouldn’t be until 2004 (only a year before she died) when Babb’s novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, would finally be published.
If you are looking for a book to complement “The Dust Bowl,” I would certainly recommend Whose Names Are Unknown. It follows a family living in Oklahoma that makes its way to the migrant labor camps in California. Struggling to survive the drought and Depression, the story of Julia and Milt Dunne gives us a glimpse into the lives of those most directly impacted by the disaster. How does it compare with The Grapes of Wrath? I’ll let you be the judge of that