More Tales From the Prairie: A Sanora Babb Conversation

Reposted from  November 28, 2013

In early September 2013, I was in my hometown of Springfield Colorado.   While eating at the Longhorn Steakhouse I got into a discussion with an old Baca County compadre, Kevin Greenlee,  about author Sanora Babb.  Babb wrote “An Owl on Every Post”  which chronicles her early years living in a dugout on the Southeast Colorado prairie near the town of Two Buttes.  Kevin’s class had taken a field trip to look for the dugout, which was the home of Babb and her family.  According to Kevin they found the general location of the dugout but not the structure itself.

General Location of Sanora Babb dugout


General location of Sanora Babb Dugout in SE Colorado

After our conversation, I started looking up some information about Babb and discovered some additional interesting information about her writing. The most interesting story was related to her depression era manuscript about the travails of a Depression-era farm family.  Babb waited 65 years in the shadow of literary giant John Steinbeck for her first completed novel to be published.  In 1939 John Steinbeck’s best-selling “The Grapes of Wrath,” was published.  Babb’s story was shelved by the venerable Random House, which feared that the market would not support two novels on the same theme. Bitterly disappointed, Babb stuck her manuscript in a drawer, and there it remained until 2004 when it was rescued by the University of Oklahoma Press. The name of her Dust Bowl novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown”.


Dustbowl in my hometown, Springfield Colorado, May 21 1937, Source: Box in my Mom's Basement

Dustbowl in my hometown, Springfield Colorado, May 21 1937, Source: Box in my Mom’s Basement

Here is where the story gets really interesting and this part of the story reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables Movie, The Continuing Story which has a theme about a famous writer stealing one of Anne’s novels.

In Babb’s case it appears  Steinbeck may have been fed and actually used some of Babb’s notes for “Grapes of Wrath”.    In early 1938, Babb worked with the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, traveling the Central Valley with her boss Tom Collins, informing migrants about programs to help them. She kept a journal of her experiences which she hoped to turn into a novel about the Dust Bowl refugees she’d met.  She wrote,

How brave they all are, they aren’t broken and docile but they don’t complain . . . They all want work and hate to have help.

Collins was sharing her reports with writer John Steinbeck.  As she prepared to publish her work, in the winter of 1939, Steinbeck had come out with his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s book was a best seller and was dedicated to none other than Tom Collins.

Sanora Babb went on to write other books based on her childhood on the southern Plains. Her Dust Bowl novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, was published in 2004, the year before her death.

NOTE: Thought it would be good to transfer this from a Facebook Conversation to a location where more people would have access

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