No doubt it was my father who introduced me to Mari Sandoz, maybe by handing me a copy of Old Jules without realizing his resemblance to the title character. I clearly recall shivering because I recognized her home place; I knew the hills and plants and coyotes and buzzards and people who were the subjects of her fiction and nonfiction because they so closely resembled the inhabitants of the western Dakota prairie ranch where I lived. At five years old, I’d gotten a library pass and begun reading books, but that was my first realization that someone like her-- someone like me-- might write them.
Studying Western history and literature in college, I asked why her work wasn't included-- and only then realized that almost no women appeared as authorities in those studies. The writing lords of the same era were always men: A. B. Guthrie, Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Stanley Vestal. I found their views narrower than Mari’s, their writing competent but less stimulating.
Older, I learned to relish Sandoz's careful research and historical accuracy, even in her fiction. More important to me was her deeply personal knowledge of the grasslands, and her demonstration that in understanding a small community, one may learn and relate important universal truths. Likewise, she prepared me for being treated as a several minorities-- as a woman, a westerner, a grasslands resident, and a rancher-- by publishers.
When I began writing about my own life on the prairie, my father ferociously objected, and even quoted Old Jules, insisting that writers and artists are the “maggots of society.” But Sandoz hadn't quit writing, so I didn't either.
Sandoz also fought for respect as an expert in information unknown to many editors, publishers, and readers. She was an authority on homesteading the Nebraska plains because she’d lived it. So I've had to defend my knowledge as a working rancher to editors who have never set foot on prairie grass, never met a cow, never hefted a firearm. In both cases, editors felt free to contradict knowledge we gained from direct and sometimes painful experience.
When I read Mari’s collected letters, I kept saying, “Yes!” in agreement with her answers to readers who disagreed with her, lectured her, and asked her for help. When my pile of mail threatens to bury me in a paper avalanche, I quote her: “I either answer letters or write books-- never both.” Yet Mari wrote hundreds of letters, offering friendship and encouragement to other writers, and perhaps gaining validation of her work, and relief from the solitude of writing. I've tried to emulate her generosity as well, helping other writers, especially those in the very minorities where Mari and I found our writing selves.
By the time I read Crazy Horse, I’d had my own strange experiences while researching the strange man of the Oglalas; and at the Custer battle site, I’d argued with authorities who at that time refused to stock her book The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When Mari Sandoz died in 1966, I sat at a desk in a newspaper office and cried. I’d always fantasized that I might meet her, tell her directly that she was the only writer I’d found able to convey my feelings about the Great Plains and its people.
Still, though I never heard her voice, I have continued to learn from her, from her writing, her research, her letters, and most of all, her spirit.
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Note: This essay was originally published in the StoryCatcher newsletter, May 2010.
For more information:
See the website for The Mari Sandoz Heritage Society at www.MariSandoz.org
The Mari Sandoz Heritage Society publishes the Story Catcher newsletter four times per year-- they are archived on their website.
Stories about people's connections to Mari Sandoz are a regular feature.
Also see the website www.SandozCenter.com
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