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Wednesday, 6 July 2011



I’m back from Chadron, but have already booked a room at the Olde Main for Friday and Saturday, and paid for it. I know I am going over budget, but I don’t want to go home in October and kick myself – as I have so many times in the past – for letting good opportunities go. And in any case, my new book with Mike Pannett comes out on the 21st of this month (Just The Job, Lad). Not only do we get paid a decent sum on publication day, but he’s emailed to say that he’s wangled us into another 200 Tesco stores. Get your books in a chain like Tesco and you’re halfway to being a best seller.

I was talking with Ed Hughes last night. He’s a friend of Jeannie’s, a writer (under the pen-name Poe Ballantyne), and was in for the fireworks with his Mexican wife and their little boy. We agreed that whatever we may be as writers we are both lousy at selling ourselves. This is where I score with Mike. While I’m at home putting his stories into readable form – and exercising huge artistic freedom, I might add – he is out there hustling like crazy. Let me offer an example of what he brings to the partnership. About eighteen months ago we both agreed that we weren’t impressed with our agent. How do you want to go about this, I asked him. Leave it with me, he said. A week later he had three of the top agents in the U.K. making appointments to meet us. He simply talked them into submission. We signed with one who hiked our advance up by 500%. So we’re a team; of three, the third member being his wife who, apart from anything else, keeps tabs on what each character has done in the past. As much as the minor characters are largely my own creation, and the sub-plots my own devising, I can never remember from one book to the next who did what to whom, nor when.  I just call Ann.

So… I think there’s enough slack in the system for me to stay at Jeannie’s place and enjoy the weekend festivities.

I spent a few hours in the archive today, spread over the morning and afternoon. I found a few useful bits of information but am more and  more coming to the conclusion that a scholarly book on Mari Sandoz is best written by a scholar. I’m more of a fan these days, and besides, I have 90 days in which to produce something. I’m counting on my passion for her work, my new familiarity with the Sandhills, and the story of how I got here, to feed into what I write.

Before I drove home I called in on Jeannie once more. I wanted to take some pictures of her spinning wheel – or rather, of one of them.


This beauty belonged to a Swede, Mary Olsen, born in 1840, who boarded a boat to the U.S. some time in the 1880s. If a woman brought nothing else with her on such a voyage, she would bring her spinning wheel. Not only would it be an invaluable aid, but it might earn her a few dollars; and besides, as Jeannie said to me, it formed the very heart of a house, and its gentle purring rhythms were the sound-track to many a young life. It’s safe to assume that Mary had had this since she was a young woman. It may well have been a wedding gift, so it’s probably 150 years old – which accounts for the treadle being worn wafer-thin on one side.


The wheel came into Jeannie’s possession by way of Ann Van Hoff, another lover of Sandoz who attends the annual conferences. Mary Olsen was her great-grandmother – or, as she likes to put it – ‘my mother’s grandmother’. It wound up in western Nebraska because that’s where Mary ended her days, aged 90, in 1930.

It’s in safe hands now. It may not have been used for 80 or 90 years and needs to be nursed back to life. But whereas some of Mary’s descendants wanted to send it to Phoenix to be ‘restored’ – ‘ruined’ in Jeannie’s estimation - it now awaits the gentler ministrations of a local craftsman in wood, and an application of the oil most suited  to bringing out its lustre.

Then Jeannie will spin on it.  She got into all this twenty years ago after an entertainer she’d hired for the hotel – Annie Biegler from Rapid City - set up a wheel during her free time. Later, after she’d had lessons, Jeannie realised that this was in her blood. Way back in her childhood when she lived in Topeka, Kansas, she’d had a neighbour who span and had been fascinated – but had done nothing about it until all these years later.

After seeing Annie at work, she ordered a wheel, and knew the day it arrived that this was mean to be. ‘It was my birthday, December 7th,’ she said. ‘And that evening it snowed. I’ve always loved snow, but this was special. There was no wind and it just came straight down, gentle and steady, and in the morning there was eight inches of it, dead level. ’

Now Jeannie gives demonstrations at State Fairs, in schools and such locations. ‘I always think that if I can capture one child’s imagination, as mine was captured way back when I was a kid, well, I will have planted a seed - maybe.’

By the time I left to come home it was later than I wanted it to be. I was running short of gas and knew that the place at Merriman would close at six. I pulled in at 6.18 to see the lady locking the door and heading for her car. I pulled up alongside and put on my most mournful face. ‘You need gas?’ she asked, and before I’d answered she had turned around d and opened up. Country people: what can I say?

Back home I was glad to see further progress in the vegetable garden. It’s not in great shape, but it has made an amazing recovery to get to this sort of condition. I watch the skies and keep my fingers crossed.


And finally, as newscasters like to say, the photo I took yesterday of the road sign, the one I needed for the proposed website. Remember, we’re in the middle of nowhere, at the junction of  a back-road and a dirt road. I think it’s rather splendid – and fortuitous, the way the skyscape on the ranch sign echoes the actual sky. I claim no  credit other than for having seen  it.