Steinbeck, John. To a God Unknown (1933).
Johnson, Josephine. Now in November (1934).
Babb, Sanora. Whose Names are Unknown (pub. 2004, written 1938).
Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Before reading: I’ve always been interested in the Dust Bowl and my interests were renewed when researching for a paper on the movie Interstellar. I’m fascinated by the intersection between science fiction and food sourcing and the movie felt particularly meaningful in light of the current monoculture epidemic in the U.S.
Warning: spoilers ahead. If you want to read these texts on your own, don’t keep reading. Honestly, though, these are things you can just read my summaries of and not ever waste time reading!
To a God Unknown
My Summary: Six years before he wrote Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote this narrative about the Wayne family who leave their homes in the east to go to California and establish a homestead. Like most of the literature of this era, the main character, Joseph, and his brothers, Thomas, Benjy, and Burton experience calamity after calamity. Their farm is successful at first, but as the rains stop and the soil dries up, they are incapable of making a living. Beset by disease, addiction, poverty, and hunger, slowly every family member leaves until Joseph is alone.
My thoughts: The title comes from the story’s one truly unique quality: whereas most of the novels, stories, and legends coming out of the Dust Bowl era are definitively Christian, this narrative allows for native deities (unspecified beyond there being a “spirit” or something that the more devout brother curses) to play a role in the life on the farm. Believing the spirit of the ancient tree on the property to be his father, Joseph becomes enamored with the tree, making offerings to it and spending time speaking with it. When Burton realizes exactly what is happening, he eventually cuts the tree at the roots, effectively killing the tree and causing the drought. The drought is only ended when Joseph offers himself to the rock in the middle of the grove, which his wife had fell to her death on years before. A weird novel, I can’t imagine doing much with it in terms of research or teaching, but it’s definitely an alternate drought narrative.
Now In November
My Summary: Yet another truly depressing Dust Bowl narrative, Now in November is uniquely told entirely from a woman’s perspective (at least, for novels actually published at the time). This is a story of a family that moves to the Midwest to live on land after they have problems “in town” (unspecified). While he tells his wife that they own the land outright, it is actually mortgaged land, meaning that they are chained by debt and will have to make a real profit (unlikely) to get free.
The parents and the oldest child, Kerrin, feel no attachment to the land, but the narrator, Margaret, and the youngest, Merle, love it. They start out with a hired hand, but when he moves to town, Father hires Grant. Margaret quickly falls in love with him, but he falls first for the eldest and then for the youngest. This group of five makes up the main cast of characters for this short and depressing story.
Kerrin is a deeply melancholic character and suffers from an “illness” which can only be depression. She works at first as a teacher, but is fired when her illness becomes more unmanageable.
With the drought, it becomes hard to pay rent and neighbor after neighbor lose their farms. The family hangs on, although it becomes much harder after the loss of Kerrin’s pay from teaching, but one day there is a fire and Mother gets burned. Kerrin commits suicide with Grant’s knife, mother dies the next day, and Grant leaves the farm. Margaret is convinced that she and Merle will somehow continue on and keep the farm.
My Thoughts: As you can see, this is a fine, uplifting text (not really) with a complex plot (nope) and is likely to be very helpful for my research (probably not). But I’m glad I read it. It just frustrates me that the only one of these narratives published at the time by a woman is basically plot-less and involves zero character development on the part of the characters. Father stays angry, Mother kind, Grant generous, Kerrin selfish and increasingly depressed, Margaret quiet and unwilling to stand up for herself, and Merle the baby. There’s a lot left to be desired.
Whose Names Are Unknown
About this Book: So, you know how I kept talking about Now in November as being the only narrative by a woman published at the time? Yeah, that’s because Sanora Babb wrote this novel and was all set to have it published when Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was released (seriously, like days before her book was to be printed). The publisher pulled the book because they thought another book about so similar a story wouldn’t sell. Unfortunately, it probably should have been the other way around. Babb lived as a farmer in the Dust Bowl and combined her own experiences with research. In fact, this novel is a story meant to be a narrative companion to Arthur Rothstein's photo, "Fleeing a Dust Storm." Babb combines her correspondence, memories, and historical documents found during her research to tell a story about the Dunne family, living in a one-room hovel when the rains failed to come. With a plot very similar to Grapes of Wrath, Babb tells the stories of families fleeing Oklahoma for the California working camps. Of course, it’s a Dust Bowl narrative, so nothing can go right (because at the time, nothing did).
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book and the narrative style. I’m not sure I would say the actual writing is better than Steinbeck, but I think the story and the craft of the writer in basing her text in real-life experience deserves an equal space in our canon with Steinbeck’s absurdly long tome.
Grapes of Wrath
Overall Assessment: What Whose Names Are Unknown lacks in written elegance, Steinbeck’s great novel possesses in droves. However, unlike Babb, Steinbeck is giving into the popularized narrative of the Dust Bowl, ignoring several facts and scientific research as he tells about the Joads and their problems. The oversymbolism isn’t really my style.
Dust Bowl Narratives, Conclusion: I really enjoyed the first of the Steinbeck novels and Babbs, but could have done without the others.