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Mari Sandoz

She was born in the rural Midwest, near Hay Springs, Nebraska, on May 11, 1896, of a domineering, brutal, self-centered father and a mother who treated her like a plow horse.  Yet, Mari Sandoz went on to write some of the most memorable realistic books about pioneers and Indians ever written.  These included The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966), and Crazy Horse (1942), a biography of the legendary Sioux Indian chief.

Sandoz's childhood seems to have been designed to crush whatever innate creativity and intelligence she might possess.  Her father, an educated man, resented women.  Her mother forced the girl to cook, clean, wash dishes, and care for her siblings even as the other children played outside.  Her fingers became crooked from holding a hoe for hours at a time, and she suffered from cramps in her arms her entire life.  When she was thirteen, she and her brother spent a day digging their cattle out of a snowdrift during a blizzard, leaving her blind in one eye.

Her schooling began late in life--she spoke only German until she was nine--and was often interrupted.  Although she was a quick learner, she didn't finish grade school until she was seventeen, and no one even thought of sending her to high school.

Sandoz was rarely allowed off the farm by her tyrannical father, and at the age of eighteen, she began an unhappy marriage that ended five years later with a divorce petition citing "extreme mental cruelty."

Her father hosted soldiers, traders, Indians, and miners from the Black Hills; and she stayed up late at night listening to them tell stories about the West.  She became obsessed with the people and places of the Old West, and she decided she wanted to write about them. 

She went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln,  The dean allowed her to take classes even though she didn't have a high school diploma.  She weighed about seventy-five pounds, wore old country clothes, and lived on the tea, sugar, and crackers that she got for free at the dining hall.  She spent hours reading old newspapers in the basement of the State Historical Society, collecting research for the books she was planning to write.

In 1933, Sandoz went back home to live with her mother on the family farm.  She had written a manuscript for a book about her father, but it was rejected by the publishers she had sent it to.  She had sold a few articles to newspapers and magazines, but not enough to make any real money.  She was thirty-seven years old, it was the middle of the Depression, and she was malnourished and suffering from migraines.  She decided to give up writing and burned her manuscripts.

But she found she could not stop writing; and, soon, she was at work on a dark and bitterly realistic tale of a ruthless Nebraska family called Sloghum House.  By January 1934, she was back in Lincoln with a good job at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where—among other things—she was the associate editor of Nebraska History magazine.

While there, a year later, she received a telegram that would change her life. Although Atlantic Press had previously rejected Old Jules, Sandoz had entered a revised version in their 1935 nonfiction contest.  It won, and a telegram announced that it would be published.

At first, she refused to believe it. Showing the telegram to the Society’s president, A. E. Sheldon, she asked what he thought it meant.

"This is where we lose you," he replied.

By the end of the year, Old Jules was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and selling enough copies so that Sandoz, for the first time in her life, could make a living as a writer.  She wrote more than two dozen books, including The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was published posthumously in 1966, although Old Jules is considered her literary masterpiece.

When the little Marie was three months old and ill with summer complaint, her cries awakened Jules. Towering dark and bearded in the lamplight, he whipped the child until she lay blue and trembling as a terrorized small animal. When Mary [her mother] dared she snatched the baby from him and carried her into the night and did not return until the bright day. - from Old Jules

The genius of Sandoz’s treatment of her father in Old Jules is in the careful balance she maintains between Jules as monster and Jules as pioneer hero.  "Only the strong and courageous, the ingenious and stubborn, remained," she wrote, describing hard times in the Panhandle.  Despite his shortcomings as a father, Old Jules embodied such qualities.  His daughter’s portrayal of him reveals a complex portrait, part tribute, part exposé.  Within a single scene, even within a single sentence, Sandoz mingles joy and sorrow, nostalgia and outrage.

With her new-found literary success came new freedoms.  Sandoz moved to Denver and then to New York City, where, no longer distracted by rejection, she continued to write to within a month of her death from cancer in 1966.  Mari Sandoz is buried near Gordon, Nebraska, on a hillside overlooking her family’s ranch.  More than a generation later, her literary legacy endures.  She is still read and still loved—a rare accomplishment for a writer.  Despite the passage of years, her best work still seems as fresh, timeless, and relevant as the day it was created.


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