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Monday, 28 March 2011















Nine days to departure, and I am slowly getting on top of things at home. Not the kitchen, which looks as though a stream of people in muddy boots have been tramping through it - that’s because they have - and not the desk, which has been neglected while I donned said boots and sorted out the allotment. I can report that it is now in fine fettle: all freshly dug over and planted with onions, peas and beans, with spuds to follow later in the week.
Time to introduce my heroine Mari Sandoz (left), and explain what attracts me to her, because this entire six-month gig is rooted in a love of her work and a fascination with her life.
The picture I’m posting is of a bronze statue which adorns the Sandoz Heritage Center (yes, I know, Centre) at Chadron, some eighty miles or so from where I’ll be staying.
I got to know Mari's work twenty years ago after I'd driven up the Santa Fe Trail from New Mexico and had my first look at Nebraska. I'd read a great deal about my childhood heroes, the cowboys and Indians who fought it out on the Great Plains, and by the time of this trip (1991) I had got interested in the explorers, hunters, fur-traders, prospectors, scouts and soldiers who mapped out the West. By now I was becoming interested in the stoic heroes of what they call the farm frontier, the sod-busters, the dirt farmers who tried to wrest a living from 160 acres of windswept prairie - and mostly failed.
I came across three particularly interesting people who had grown up on the Great Plains in farming communities, all of them women, all them writers. One was that fine novelist Willa Cather, who grew up in Red Cloud, some way south of where I'm going to be staying, near the Kansas line. A second was Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House series and whose life was far less happy than the books suggest. Then came Mari Sandoz, whose early life in the Nebraska Panhandle informed her entire writing career.
Let's start with some snapshots from Mari's life. Her father, Jules Ami Sandoz, a Swiss medical student, ran away from home when his parents tried to put a stop to his amorous dalliance with a (female) railway clerk. In a fury, he crossed the Atlantic, headed west until there were no more people, then claimed a homestead in the Nebraska Panhandle, right beside the Niobrara river.
Let's not beat about the bush here: Old Jules, as he was known, was one cantankerous sonofabitch. He had already abandoned one wife and driven a second mad when he married a third, who came mail order. Even if she was willing to live in a hovel with a leaking roof in the middle of nowhere, she was not going to have her husband skinning muskrats on the kitchen table and leaving her to clean up the guts - let alone the fact that he neither washed nor shaved, had been crippled in a well-digging accident, and still carried a wound that constantly oozed a malodorous pus. She took a train back east. The fourth wife would surely have done likewise had she not found herself pregnant. The first of her six children was Mari, born in 1896.
At three months Mari was beaten black and blue by her father for crying too loud. At eleven, when she told him she'd had a story published in the Omaha paper, he locked her in a snake-infested cellar. Fiction was for serving girls. When she was fourteen he decided there were too many people around. He sent her, with her ten-year-old brother, to watch over a new spread he'd acquired, deep in the Sandhills with no neighbours in sight. He packed them some flour and beans, a gun and a few other odds and ends. It was May. See you in September, he said, and left them to it. Free of his domination for a season, free to wander from dawn to dusk in pursuit of game, Mari fell in love with the Sandhills, with the endless vistas of grass and sky, the song of the meadowlark.
Her father may have been mean and dirty, but he was educated. With the children all needing new shoes he frittered away an entire inheritance on a set of phonograph records - to teach them the value of good music and remind them of their European heritage. Despite his cultured background - or because of it - found he had more in common with the Native Americans than with most white people, and would frequently have veterans of the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) and even the Little Big Horn (1876) gathered at his table to trade, smoke tobacco and tell stories - perhaps unaware that a little girl was crouched by her attic door, listening to every word.
Aged 16 Mari ran off to be a teacher, at 18 she got married, and at 23 was divorced, taking herself off to the state capital, Lincoln, to be a writer. How she laboured for success - and achieved it - is an epic story in its own right, and I dare say I'll get into that some time in the future. Her very best work celebrates the Great Plains in general, the Sandhills in particular, but always the people - Native and white - who populated the area in those stirring frontier times. It was the 'warts and all' portrayal of her father's life that got her launched. She followed Old Jules with a superb biography of Crazy Horse and a series of books that chronicled, among other subjects, the decline of the Cheyenne people, the growth of the cattle trade, the exploits of the buffalo hunters and the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Every one reflected her deep attachment to the Great Plains landscape.
I've posted a couple of photos of typical Sandhill scenes (above). One is taken in the vicinity of Mari's grave, just visible in the distance. It overlooks the spread she and her little brother watched over, that summer of 1910. The second, of the fence-post, speaks to me in some way I cannot yet put into words. Somewhere down the line I expect I'll find out how to integrate these images with the text. For the moment, they sit where the blogspot designers decree that they must sit. Being a well brought up sort of guy, I will just be grateful for the chance to get them up there in some sort of order - and ask for my readers' indulgence.
I hope this hasn't been too 'scholarly'. I am interested in all aspects of Great Plains life - from the weather to the scenery to the cowboy culture and ranching practice, not to mention the individuals who contrive to make a living out West. I know that already a number of local characters have expressed an interest in meeting the crazy Limey who's coming to stay - and while I have been warned not to believe too much of what they tell me I can't wait to make their acquaintance. So I expect to wander to and fro in these essays, between daily life on the ranch, the weather, my explorations along the banks of the Niobrara, and what I'd call more cultural matters. In my next posting I think I'd better describe how I came to obtain the tenancy of the old hunting lodge. That's quite a story in itself.
But right now... lunch.