Mari Sandoz’s struggles as a writer were a metaphor for the landscape of her origin, the Great Plains. A wind-whistled place, home to drought, blizzards, tornados, and plagues of grasshoppers, its very hardness has branded it America’s most provincial and uninteresting region. From this unforgiving milieu she fashioned eighteen books with the tenacity of a homesteader harnessed to a plow. Maybe her career would have been easier if — like her celebrated contemporary Willa Cather — she had not waited until later in her life to leave.
Born in Hays Spring, Nebraska in the Sandhills in 1896 to Swiss immigrants Jules and Mary Fehr Sandoz, Mari Susette Sandoz was the eldest of six children. Her father Jules Sandoz was a rancher who believed that children should not only work, but know hard labor. Mari as a child performed ranch work under harsh conditions. She once went snowblind after digging a number of floundering cattle out of a huge snowdrift. Jules also discouraged his daughter’s precocious reading and writing. He was the first obstacle that she would surmount. Another was a failed marriage when at 18 she wed a neighboring rancher named Wray Macumber, a man identical to her father in temperament.
Sandoz’s success with her later historically oriented books can ironically be partially credited to her father. “Old Jules” knew many hard-bitten men who had connections to the old pre-agricultural life on the plains: grizzled trappers and buffalo hunters, and veterans of the Indian wars. Many an evening in Mari’s youth saw the family host at their table one or more of these characters with their interesting stories to tell, and she seems to have absorbed every detail — historical and otherwise — in these “silent hours of listening behind the stove or the wood box, when it was assumed, of course, that I was asleep in bed.”
Abandoning her marriage, and despite lacking a high school diploma, Sandoz managed to enter the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1922, thanks to the help of a kindly administrator. But her struggles as a writer were just beginning. Later in life she claimed to have collected a thousand rejection slips for submitted short stories. This is likely an exaggeration, and may include work in a variety of forms: essays, journalism, etc. In 1934 she took a job as the associate editor of Nebraska History magazine, the publication of the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Sandoz was nearly 40 when she published Old Jules (1935), the story of her immigrant father’s struggle to build his Nebraska ranch. Her big breakthrough came in 1942 with Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas, a biography of the legendary Sioux chief based on an unconventional research modus operandi where, as she wrote, “I have used the simplest words possible hoping… to say some of the things of the Indian for which there are no white-man words, [and to] suggest something of his innate nature.” During her career she also published six forgettable novels such as Slogum House (1937) and Capital City (1939), books that disappeared without much notice, though the latter was an excoriation of life in Lincoln that earned her so much local opprobrium that she moved to Denver to escape it. Sandoz could write competent but bland fiction, while excelling at nonfiction. It seems this apprenticeship in imaginative mediocrity forged a style suited to serve her true calling, the writing of history and memoir related to the Great Plains. For instance, the Crazy Horse biography demonstrated that Sandoz could vividly describe events from the native point of view. Another book in this vein was The Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966), her take on one of America’s noteworthy military disasters, and controversial with Custer scholars at the time because she refused to contribute to then-fashionable George Armstrong Custer hagiography.
She is especially admired for an historical trilogy: The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Cattlemen (1958), and The Beaver Men (1964) — books covering a century of Plains history and promoting the idea that until the arrival of dryland wheat farmers late in the 19th century, the region’s economic worth was produced almost exclusively by the flesh and fur of animals. There were few trees to cut on the sea of grass, and though gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, oil and gas development wouldn’t proceed until the 20th century. The Great Plains only reluctantly bestows its riches.
The author’s most successful book was Cheyenne Autumn (1953), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and story of an 1878 breakout of 300 Northern Cheyennes from an “Indian Territory” (Oklahoma) reservation as they strove to return to their ancestral homeland on the Yellowstone River in present Montana. The book reads like a novel with its brisk action and treatment of the historical dramatis personae such as Chief Dull Knife and Generals George Crook and Nelson Miles. The Indians (with women and children in tow) run and fight their way north for fifteen hundred miles in a futile quest that cost many lives and ultimately sent the fugitives back to the reservation. In the book’s preface she wrote that this was a period “that turned a free hunting people into sullen agency sitters.” It inspired the 1964 film starring Richard Widmark and James Stewart, and directed by John Ford, the latter’s last western. Sandoz hated the movie because — typical of Hollywood meddling with historical realism — Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were added to the plot, two historical characters who had nothing to do with the Cheyenne odyssey. It was her last disappointment.
Sandoz died (1966) of cancer not long after the film’s release. A life of stamina and determination with a sharp, metaphorical prairie wind in her face was over. But the Plutarch of the Plains left behind a great American legacy.