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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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