Born 21 April 1907, Leavenworth, Kansas
Writes under: Sylvester Davis
Daughter of Walter and Jennie Parks Babb; married James W.Howe, 1949
During Sanora Babb's early years, her family lived in Oklahoma, where Babb spent much time among the Oto tribe. Her father was at various times a farmer, baker, baseball player, and professional gambler. After Babb's early years, the family led a nomadic life among the small towns and farms of Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado. Babb attended the University of Kansas and Garden City (Kansas) Junior College. From 1925 to 1929 she worked on smalltown newspapers and a farm journal.
After moving to California in 1929, Babb held various writing jobs and began publishing short stories. During the Depression, she hitchhiked across the country, lived for a while in Harlem, and traveled in Europe. After returning to California, she wrote articles about the dust-bowl families who were arriving in great numbers, and helped set up camps in the fields for them.
Babb's experiences with the migratory workers provided the substance of her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, written in 1939. She describes the uprooted farmers who became a cheap source of labor for the large industrialized farms. Women, too, bore the brunt of suffering; Babb describes half-starved women giving birth to dead infants on the floors of tents. Drawing on these same experiences with migrant workers in the Depression decades later, Babb wrote The Dark Earth and Other Stories from the Great Depression (1987).
Babb's second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958, reissued 1995), tells the tale of a smalltime gambler. Des Tannehill, based in part on Babb's father, disdains working for others and tries to maintain his fierce independence through gambling. His choice of a trade prevents his family from being respected members of the community, a matter quite important to them. The story ends with the disintegration of a close family.
An Owl on Every Post (1970, reissued 1994) is a memoir of Babb's family and their relocation from smalltown Oklahoma to rural eastern Colorado. Told from a child's perspective, the book recounts the family's loss of nearly everything they owned and captures life on the Great Plains in the early 20th century. Cry of the Tinamou (1997) is a collection of 14 stories, some of which were previously published in magazines as diverse as the Saturday Evening Post and Seventeen. The tales are set in the West with strong female protagonists and characters of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Babb's recent work, Told in the Seed: Poems (1998), is her first published collection of poetry. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many anthologies, including CrossSection of American Literature (1945, 1948) and American Childhoods (1987). "The Wild Flower" and "The Santa Ana" appeared in Best American Short Stories (1950, 1960). Babb received a Borestone Mountain Poetry Award in 1967 and served as the editor of the Clipper from 1940 to 1941 and the California Quarterly from 1951 to 1952.
Prominent in all Babb's writing is a respect and love for all people and their differing needs. She is sympathetic to their problems, regardless of racial and cultural backgrounds; her main characters are those who are in some way prevented from reaching their full potential. She is critical of any relationship that subordinates one person to another, including a marriage in which the husband dominates the family. It is the oldest daughter in her first two published books who represents this critical view. A recurring image of freedom is the great bowl of the sky, always luring those who love independence away from life-stifling relationships.
Consistent with Babb's regard for all life is her regard for art. Her books are carefully wrought, written with simplicity and directness. They give a detailed picture of some vanishing ways of life and may be read as historical as well as literary documents.
Saroyan, W., Letters to Sonora Babb (1932, 1941).
London Sunday Times (28 Nov. 1971). LAT (31 Mar. 1958). Madison (Wisconsin) Capital Times (22 Apr. 1971). NYHT (23 Mar. 1958). NYT (20 Mar. 1958). PW (22 Sept. 1997). TLS (9 May 1958, 12 Nov. 1971).
UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS