By Deirdre David
In the summer of 1913, a seven-year old girl named Sanora Babb traveled by train from Red Rock, Oklahoma to the plains of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains. With her parents she was heading for a government claim of one hundred and sixty acres provisionally owned by her grandfather Alonzo. Her father Walter was a baker whose bakery had gone bust, in part because he loved playing poker more than kneading loaves. He figured he’d take a chance on planting broomcorn and for six years the Babb family pulled the stalks and baled them for sale to buyers from Kansas City. They got fifty dollars a ton.
In the back of the train were bags of flour, slabs of lard, cans of vegetables - provisions for the new Babb home: an underground dugout reached by steep cement steps. The floor was hardened earth, the walls were plastered earth, and into this underground space was crammed a bed for Sanora’s parents, a wire cot for herself and her baby sister, a small table, and a two-burner stove. The nearest town was Two Buttes some twenty miles away and there was no school within a hundred miles. In this dugout Sanora Babb learned to read.
Mixing a paste of flour and water, her mother papered the dugout walls with old copies of the Denver Post: spelling out stories of murders, robberies, beaten children, political skullduggery constituted Sanora’s primary school education. When the weather was warm enough, she graduated to the barn where her grandfather let her read from his only book, The Daring Adventures of Kit Carson Among Buffaloes, Grizzlies and Indians. She studied it to learn words, copied from it to learn to spell, traced numbers from its pages to grasp elementary arithmetic, read it aloud, and wrote lesson on what she had read. At the age of eleven, when the family moved to Elkart, Kansas, she finally went to a proper school and attended Garden City Junior College. Her first job was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.
At the beginning of the Blitz in September 1940 I descended to another kind of dugout – an air-raid shelter cobbled together from shop basements on Streatham High Road in south London. As I listened to the drone of Stukas overhead and to the pounding of the antiaircraft guns, I read my father’s newspaper The Daily Express: many of the stories eluded my understanding, as had the lurid items in the Denver Post escaped Sanora’s quick intelligence, but it was huddled there in the shelter with my mother and many fretful children, that I learned to read. I especially liked the daily story of Robert Bear; he wore a red jumper and yellow checked trousers and lived in Nutwood, an idyllic English village about as far away as one could imagine from a basement air-raid shelter on Streatham High Road.
Just as the Denver Post pasted on the dugout walls and the adventures of Kit Carson had thrilled and educated Sanora Bab, so the Daily Express stories of German bombing, heroic sorties by the RAF, Winston Churchill stomping around the devasted East End of London, cigar in one hand and V for Victory sign in the other, pictures of mangled bodies being pulled from bomb-sites, formed my early education.
And now, responsibly holed up in my New York City apartment, venturing out for a daily walk in the park, I read: not the wallpaper, but the New York Times on my iPAD. At the start of this sequestration, I vowed to finish Proust, but faltering concentration stopped me at the beginning of Volume Two. Then I turned to Julian Barnes’s latest novel The Man in the Red Coat (characteristically clever), Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (a prescient narrative) and, remembering Sanora Babb and the dugout, The Daring Adventures of Kit Carson (actually quite thrilling). This memory has prompted the beginning of a new biography: the story of Sanora Babb who grew up to be a journalist and short story writer, joined the Communist Party, married the cinemaphotographer James Wong Howe, and worked as a migrant farm camp manager in the Farm Security Administration in 1938. She helped establish tent camps for dispossessed migrant workers in the agricultural valleys of California and wrote about all this in Whose Names Are Unknown, a harrowing account of dispossessed farmers and their families driven from their lands by greedy bankers grabbing up mortgages and by the dust storms, driving to California to pick peas, apricots, and cotton. She never forgot what she learned from reading the wallpaper in the family dugout, just as I have never forgotten reading about the war in my father’s newspaper while sheltering underground. Those of us sheltering at home, not risking our lives as are thousands of hospital workers, police officers, and firefighters, are immensely fortunate that we have the leisure to read, cooped up as we may be.
Deirdre David is a biographer and Professor Emerita of English at Temple University.