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Mari Sandoz
Mari Sandoz.jpg
Mari Sandoz, 1938
Born
Mary Susette Sandoz

(1896-05-11)May 11, 1896
Sandoz Post Office, Running Water Precinct, Sheridan County, Nebraska
Died March 10, 1966 (1966-03-11) (aged 69)
Education
Parent(s)
  • Jules Ami
  • Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz

Mari Susette Sandoz (May 11, 1896 – March 10, 1966) was a Nebraska novelist, biographer, lecturer, and teacher. She became one of the West's foremost writers, and wrote extensively about pioneer life and the Plains Indians. She received the Newbery Medal.

Early life and education

Sandoz was born near Hay Springs, Nebraska, the eldest of six children born to Swiss immigrants, Jules and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz. Her father was said to be a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of her writing and reading. Her childhood was spent in hard labor on the home farm, and she developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family's cattle out of a snowdrift.

She graduated from the eighth grade at the age of 17, secretly took the rural teachers' exam, and passed. She taught in nearby country schools without ever attending high school. At the age of eighteen, Sandoz married a neighboring rancher, Wray Macumber. She was unhappy in the marriage, and in 1919, citing "extreme mental cruelty," divorced her husband and moved to Lincoln.

Early writings

For the next sixteen years, Mari held a variety of low-paying jobs, while writing—to almost no success—under her married name, Marie Macumber. Despite her lack of a high school diploma, she managed to enroll at the University of Nebraska, thanks to a sympathetic dean. During those years, she claimed to have received over a thousand rejection slips for her short stories.

In 1928, when she received word her father was dying, she visited her family, and was stunned by his last request: he asked her to write his life story. She began extensive research on his life, and documented his decision to become a pioneer, his hard work chiselling out a life on the prairie, his leadership within the pioneer community, and his friendship with the local Indians in the area. The resulting book was Old Jules, published under the name Mari Sandoz, which she had resumed using in 1929.

In 1933, malnourished and in poor health, she moved back home to the Sand Hills to stay with her mother. Every major publishing house in the United States had rejected Old Jules. Before she left Lincoln, Sandoz tossed over 70 of her manuscripts into a wash tub in her backyard and burned them.

Yet she continued to write, and began work on her next novel, Slogum House, a gritty and realistic tale about a ruthless Nebraska family. By January 1934, she returned to Lincoln, and got a job at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where she became associate editor of Nebraska History magazine.

In 1935, she received word that her revised version of Old Jules had won a non-fiction contest held by Atlantic Press, after fourteen rejections. Finally, her book would be published. Before that happened, however, she had to fight her editor to retain the distinctive Western idiom in which she had written the book, as her publishers wanted her to standardize the English used in the book.

The book was well-received critically and commercially when it was issued, and became a Book of the Month Club selection. Some readers were shocked at her unromantic depiction of the Old West, as well as her strong language and realistic portrayal of the hardships of frontier life.

Later life and works

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Monument honoring
Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson in Western Nebraska where he was killed in 1877.

In 1937, Sandoz published Slogum House, a novel set in the Sandhills that warned about the rise of fascism. The novel was criticized for being dirty, and both the Nebraska cities of McCook and Omaha banned it from their respective libraries in 1938. During this time, Sandoz moved the Shurtleff Arms at 645 South 17th Street. This is the only extant Lincoln residence of Sandoz. There she wrote her second novel Capital City (1939), which brought her notoriety of a different nature: hate mail and threats. Slogum House was considered an attack on the character of rural Nebraskans, and Capital City was perceived as an assault on the city of Lincoln.

In 1940, Sandoz moved to Denver, partly to escape the backlash, and also for better research facilities. Later, in 1943, she settled in New York City so she could access the research material on the West, and have proximity to her publishers.

In 1942 her monumental biography of the great Lakota leader Crazy Horse was published. It is entitled Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas. Sandoz proved to be ahead of her time by writing the biography from within the Lakota world-view, using Lakota concepts and metaphors, and even replicating Lakota patterns of speech. Some critics consider it her greatest work. As she says in her preface to Crazy Horse:

I have used the simplest words possible, hoping by idiom and figures and the under-lying rhythm pattern to say some of the things of the Indian for which there are no white-man words, suggest something of his innate nature, something of his relationship to the earth and the sky and all that is between.

Her meticulous attention to detail, her in-depth research, and her admiration of the Plains Indian culture is also noticeable in later works such as Cheyenne Autumn (1953), The Horsecatcher (1957), and The Story Catcher (1963).

Bison herd grazing at the National Bison Range
Herd of buffalo grazing in a Western meadow.

Three other books of her Great Plains series, The Buffalo Hunters (1954), one of her best known, and The Cattlemen (1958) and The Beaver Men (1964) each develop the history of the West in relation to an animal species.

Sandoz liked to encourage other writers. She presented summer writing workshops at institutions such as the University of Wisconsin–Madison, reviewed manuscripts sent to her by aspiring authors and provided helpful comments, and taught creative writing through programming produced by Nebraska Educational Television. She advised writers to "pick a subject you know well, and write about it." Sandoz kept writing, even within a month of her death from bone cancer in 1966.

By her request, she was buried south of Gordon, Nebraska, on a hillside overlooking her family's Sandhills ranch.

A bust of Sandoz along with others of the Nebraska Hall of Fame are displayed in the Nebraska State Capitol. An historical marker, placed by the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society is at the location where she lived while writing Old Jules.

Awards

  • 1950 - An honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Nebraska.
  • 1954 - The Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska for her "sincere and realistic presentation of Nebraska as it was."
  • 1958 - John Newbery Medal for The Horsecatcher.
  • 1963 - Spur Award for best Juvenile fiction for The Story Catcher.
  • 1964 - Saddleman Award now called the Owen Wister Award for The Story Catcher.
  • 1969 - The Mari Sandoz Award is established by the Nebraska Library Association. It is given annually to "significant, enduring contribution to the Nebraska book world through writing, film production, or related activity."
  • 1975-76 - Inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
  • In 1998, she was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Non-fiction

  • Old Jules. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
  • Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942.
  • Cheyenne Autumn (book). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.
  • The Buffalo Hunters. New York: Hastings House, 1954.
  • The Cattlemen: From the Rio Grande Across the Far Marias. New York: Hastings House, 1958.
  • Son of the Gamblin' Man: The Youth of an Artist. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1960.
  • These Were the Sioux. New York: Hastings House, 1961.
  • Love Song to the Plains. Harper & Row State Series. New York: Harper & Row, 1961; Lincoln.
  • The Beaver Men, Spearheads of Empire. New York: Hastings House, 1964.
  • The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Lippincott Major Battle Series. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.

Fiction

  • Slogum House. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937.
  • Capital City. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939.
  • The Tom-Walker. New York: Dial Press, 1947.
  • Winter Thunder. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.
  • Miss Morissa: Doctor of the Gold Trail. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
  • The Horsecatcher. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957.
  • The Story Catcher. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

Essays

  • 'The Kinkaider Comes and Goes: Memories of an Adventurous Childhood in the Sandhills of Nebraska.' North American Review 229 (April, May 1930):431–42, 576–83.
  • 'The New Frontier Woman.' Country Gentleman, Sept. 1936, p. 49.
  • 'There Were Two Sitting Bulls.' Blue Book, Nov. 1949, pp. 58–64.
  • 'The Look of the West—1854.' Nebraska History 35 (Dec. 1954):243–54.
  • 'Nebraska.' Holiday, May 1956, pp. 103–14.
  • 'Outpost in New York.' Prairie Schooner 37 (Summer 1963):95–106.
  • 'Introduction to George Bird Grinnell,' The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. New York: Cooper Square, 1962.
  • 'Introduction to Amos Bad Heart Bull and Helen Blish', A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Collections of short writings

  • Hostiles and Friendlies: Selected Short Writings of Mari Sandoz. Edited by Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959 and 1976.
  • Sandhill Sundays and Other Recollections. Edited by Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

Additional resources

  • Stauffer, Helen W, 'Mari Sandoz', Kearney State College.
  • The Mari Sandoz Heritage Society
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