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Friday, 2 September 2011

Wonderful: a cold morning. Almost nine o’clock and it’s cloudy, damp and still only 63 degrees after another brief storm last night.

Yesterday I commuted between the garden and the recliner. Outside, I continued to dismantle the vegetable plot, using the excess soil to bank up against the sides of the house so that any rain water will in future drain away from the walls rather than into them. Last night’s brief downpour did just that.

Inside, I listened to some more of the tapes I made ten years ago – no, it was eleven – when I was trying to make that radio programme about Mari Sandoz. I dug out the long interview I had with her sister Caroline, who was then ninety years old. We covered a lot of ground. I’d forgotten quite how much. She talked about the ‘batteries’ of guns that stood at their front door when she was a kid: rifles, shotguns, but no revolvers. She reminded me that not only was hunting a favourite pastime of her father, but that he traded in guns and took them in for repair. The yard outside the orchard place was littered with scrap metal, bits and pieces from his ongoing work. He also fixed clocks and watches, something Mari doesn’t mention in her books, as far as I recall. But of course, it’s important to remember that Mari left home and got married when Caroline was only four. She did, however, teach her little sister in school for three years – and was a strict disciplinarian.

I talked to Caroline about marriage. Mari, she said, told her that she knew, within two weeks, that she wouldn’t stay with Wray Macumber. ‘She didn’t like being married. Flora got divorced too. I didn’t like it either, but I wouldn’t let it fail. But then you have to remember that they had no kids. I did – and they were bright, fun.’ She added that when Mari won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly prize for Old Jules in 1935 she wrote to her little sister and told her to get a divorce and she would pay for her to go to college. So, I asked, was she a feminist? ‘Yes, she thought men had it way too good in this world. But she was exasperated with women because of their weaknesses.’ Marriage, she added, was a practical necessity back then. You had to have a partner to look after the place, with a visit to town taking two or three days. But some old maids managed, some widows. They’d maybe have an arrangement with a bachelor outfit to look after each other’s livestock. It was practical; love had nothing to do with it.

Of her father she had plenty to say. ‘He was contradictory. He had two sides. He never learned to curb his temper – but he never had heart trouble either.’ She went on to explain that expressing your temper was good for you. The only trouble was that he did it to excess, and damaged his liver. ‘He was a very interesting man. Always had something to talk about, and if he didn’t he go and read his books until he found something.’ People, Caroline, said, would come to the house and get him talking, knowing that once he started they’d be there for hours, and meanwhile Mother would be preparing the next meal. She was an excellent cook – and of course they were hanging on until the meal was served and they would be invited to eat with the family.

As to Mari’s book about their father, ‘It wasn’t popular around here.’ But people bought it, and would hide it under the mattress. They didn’t want anyone to know they’d got it. ‘It was a dirty book about a dirty old man, they said.’ 

Again, one needs to be reminded of the age difference between the eldest and the youngest. ‘I saw Mari maybe once every two or three years when she came home – and she and Papa would start arguing right away. I really didn’t know her till I read her letters. Then I knew what she was about.’ 

We covered a wide range of topics in our interview – and I may come back to it another time. It was useful to have this refreshing take on things – her view of her father, for example, and a few insights on her big sister. I asked her about the time Mari, smarting from yet another rejection of her work, decided to give it all up, and burned seventy short stories in a wash-tub, in the yard of her apartment on 12th Street in Lincoln. ‘She was so mad she had to do something. She had copies of all those things at publishers. There’s only two I didn’t find.’

I’ll come back to these tapes, perhaps tomorrow. Right now, though, a late breakfast is next on the agenda.

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