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Thursday, 24 January 2013

So that's why Mari Sandoz is buried halfway up the hill!

I wasn’t expecting too much from Backstage, but of course I was always going to buy it. I’ve known the author, Ron Hull, for some years, and you do that for your friends: I mean buy the book, read the book, and cross your fingers.

The reason I was in doubt is that Ron has spent his entire professional life - and he’s still working, in his ninth decade - in public broadcasting in the USA. Yes, I listen to public broadcasting - here in England and Over There - but I couldn’t imagine that such a memoir would be anything more than a series of anecdotes from a world of which my only experience has been as a freelance writer, working on documentaries for the BBC.

Well, I was wrong. Ron’s book starts with the intriguing story of his arrival in the world. He discovers that he is, most likely, the illegitimate son of a  prostitute employed in a Rapid City brothel owned by a good friend of Martha Jane Canary - known to us these days as Calamity Jane. He details a happy upbringing at the hands of loving and caring adoptive parents, and the pure chance that saw him enter the armed services and be assigned to setting up an early TV broadcasting system. How very fortunate some people are, to find their metier so early.

Not long out of the forces, Ron hit the road clutching his CV, sat interviews at various TV stations around the country and landed a job with the embryonic Nebraska Educational TV. The rest, as they say, is history.

I knew I would be interested to hear his stories of interviewing, and working with, Mari Sandoz, the Great Plains historian and novelist. She is, after all, the woman whose work brings me back to Nebraska time after time. Aside from a number of insights into her personality and beliefs, I learned the secret of her burial site, which I’ve visited a number of times.


The grave that was supposed to be... a little higher
Her grave lies halfway up a hillside overlooking the homestead her father settled when she was 14, back in the late summer of 1910: the orchard place, as it is known. I’d never thought to wonder why it was on the side of the hill. It seems to fit very well into the south-facing slope. The Sandhills are, after all, at the centre of her work, and the view from there is of the very landscape that she evokes so powerfully in the classic story of her father, Old Jules.
 
The view from Mari Sandoz' grave, looking over the site of her father's orchards and homestead
Well…! It turns out Mari wanted to be buried at the top of the hill. But the day of her interment (in March 1966) was cold and snowy, and partway up the hill her sister Caroline decided they’d come far enough. ‘Put her down here’, she panted. ‘That’s the best we can do.’  

In the late 1960s, Ron went to work in Vietnam as part of the US Government’s initiative to establish an educational television network in the south of the country. His account of how he came, slowly, to realise the truth about his country’s presence in Indochina - namely, that it shouldn’t be there - is told without any sort of tub-thumping. It comes across to the reader just as it came to him - naturally, slowly, convincingly.

There’s far more in this book than I expected. There’s even some humour - like the extraordinary story of the time NETV took on NBC over the rights to their ‘N’ for Nebraska logo - and won. Then there's the time when Ron, renowned for his capacity for name-dropping, acknowledges the fact in a story about himself. Shortly after being appointed Director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Program Fund, he finds himself at a dinner in DC where he’s formally congratulated on landing ‘a job where he can drop his own name’. 

Okay, that’s quite a plug. The book’s not for everyone. But for anyone who knows of Ron, and knows about Nebraska’s public broadcasting record (hell, it kept me sane those long lonely days down by the Niobrara in 2011) I’d say, go and buy it.

A favourite Nebraska image