Mari Susette Sandoz, a historian and novelist of the American West, was the daughter of Jules Ami Sandoz and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Fehr. Her father, a Swiss immigrant who came to America in 1881 and homesteaded in western Nebraska in 1884, was a community builder and a champion of small farmers in their struggle against ranchers. He was also a domestic tyrant, his stature diminished by a lifetime of legal quarrels and by savage acts of violence against his wife and children. As a child, Sandoz was required to perform tasks that would have been dangerous for an adult. Once she was sent to bring in the cattle during a blizzard and suffered an attack of snow blindness that permanently blinded one eye; on another occasion her father, in a rage, broke a bone in her hand, leaving the hand partially crippled for the rest of her life.
Sandoz received less than five years of sporadic education in country schools, but her determination to become a writer originated in childhood, and the environment of the Nebraska frontier, violent and dangerous as it was, provided a wealth of material that she was able to draw on throughout her life. Her father was a friend to the Sioux Indians who visited his ranch, some of them warriors who had only recently been at war with the United States Army, and Sandoz’s early determination to do literary justice to them originated in these encounters.
Despite her limited education, Sandoz passed the rural teachers’ examination in 1913 and conducted her first school in her father’s barn. A year later she married a young local rancher, Wray Macumber, but she was divorced from him in 1919. That year she went to Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend a business college, and during the next sixteen years she struggled to earn a living at a variety of jobs while getting an education and beginning to write. She attended the University of Nebraska when she could afford it but never took a degree; meanwhile she began to write short stories based on her memories of western Nebraska. Before her father died in 1928, he asked her to write his biography, and though she had often thought of doing so his hold upon her was so great that she hesitated to begin.
Old Jules, her first...
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