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Friday, 20 May 2011

I have a good friend called Don who grew up in west Texas, in cattle country. Whenever he’s making plans he always adds the rider, ‘If the good Lord wills it and the creeks don’t rise.’  Well, no creeks as such here, but when you get puddles the size of this one you’re inclined to have to re-think.

So… no fossil-hunting today. In fact, it was a minor miracle that we coaxed Mercy up the trail to the ranch-house to do our online things. As the morning wore on the rain got heavier, and we had an entertaining spell mid-morning re-deploying the buckets – with some success, I should add. After an early lunch we took one look outside and agreed it would be a reading day.

I’m going through Old Jules again, and the Chainsaw is reading it for the first time. He keeps putting his copy down, frowning, and saying things like, ‘He really was a deeply unpleasant man.’

I have to say I’ve never really formed a solid, fixed opinion of the guy. Yes, he beat and abandoned his first wife. Yes, he drove his second wife mad. Yes, he so disgusted wife number three with his personal habits that she fled in the night after two weeks with him. And yes, finally, he deceived wife number four into marrying him and treated her like a skivvy. Then he beat their three-month-old daughter for crying.  I could go on. It’s some rap sheet.

And yet, and yet… he was the one who went out in a raging blizzard to deliver a neighbour’s baby, the one who stood up to the hired guns when they tried to frighten the settlers off land the cattlemen wanted, who brought to justice the crazed pyromaniac across the river after he’d set off a series of prairie fires - and fired off a shot that almost killed wife number four.

And then I remember that this portrait is written by the very same daughter who was beaten by him, and bullied, but who finally came to see beyond the old man’s temper, his egotism, his bombast – and chose to dwell on his heroic qualities. There is genuine affection for the old s.o.b. in some passages, and I suspect that writing this book was an act of reconciliation for Mari.

I am left looking at Jules Sandoz and saying to myself, ‘He was what he was.’ We need to remember that while some people wrote of Mari’s book that she had besmirched the good name of the American pioneer, she received infinitely more letters confirming that her father was not particularly unusual, that you had to be tough, occasionally brutal, to survive those times, that domestic violence was routine back then and that her portrayal of pioneer life was spot-on. Let us not forget, either,  that the old man did mellow in time. Some years ago when I interviewed the youngest of the Sandoz children, Caroline, she remarked that Jules never frightened her. ‘We laughed at him,’ she said, ‘and ran away; and with his crippled leg he couldn’t catch us.’  

No, I find myself far more interested in his daughter. Before completing Old Jules she wrote several drafts of an autobiographical novel based on her upbringing – and worked out a considerable amount of rage and bitterness, mostly about her father. And then, after his death, she started researching the history of her  region in the newspaper archives at Rushville and Chadron and Gordon, and interviewing oldtimers, and found that his name cropped up over and over as a major player in the early settlement of the Panhandle, an energetic advocate for the small farmer, a tireless opponent of big money interests, a man of culture and learning who made good on his promise that he would grow  fruit in the apparently barren sandhills. So I find myself fascinated in the way her view of him shifted, in her apparent forgiveness of his earlier transgressions, her ultimate gratitude, I suspect, for the gift of intelligence, the habit of research, the priceless experience that his pioneering impulse passed on to her.

I dare say I’ll come back to this at a later date, because Jules is a controversial figure. But think what you will of him – you are still stuck with a daughter who found the heroic heart of the man.  Anyway, read the book - and make your own judgement.

The rain eased in mid-afternoon, which pleased me: I had arranged to talk to my younger daughter at three. While I was up there, huddled under a cedar tree, I managed to snap what I believe is a Pasque-flower, and this bunch of little blue-stem. This is the grass that’s been turning such a vivid rusty colour in poor light or rain. 

I hadn’t been back long when a large truck appeared in the yard. Hunters, six of them. Two fathers, four sons, aged about fourteen to nineteen. They’re with us till Sunday, and they are an interesting lot. They use bows and arrows, and with luck I’ll have had a chance to take a closer look at their weapons and photograph them by tomorrow.   

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