(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mari (Susette) Sandoz 1896–1966

(Also wrote under pseudonym of Mari Macumber) American nonfiction writer, novelist, short story writer, and historian. Sandoz is widely considered an outstanding historian of the American West, as well as an accomplished regional novelist. Although she was not formally trained as a historian, her work has been praised for its accuracy in describing the development and settling of the Great Plains. Believing that earlier books on the Old West had relied on romanticism and had grossly distorted historical fact, Sandoz became known as an exceptional authority on the West because of her candid realism and strong narrative skill.

Sandoz was born in northwest Nebraska and raised by Swiss immigrant parents. Her childhood was typical of many frontier children. As the eldest of six children, she bore the burden of tending to her younger brothers and sisters as well as performing heavy physical chores. While in her teens, Sandoz was sent out in a blizzard to retrieve the family's livestock that had strayed. As a result of the exposure to the sun and snow during that incident, she was permanently blinded in her left eye. At seventeen Sandoz completed the eighth grade and became a teacher at a nearby rural school. She later attended the University of Nebraska.

Sandoz's father had a significant impact on her life and writing career. Her first book, Old Jules (1935), is a narrative based on the life of her father. Jules Sandoz was the quintessential pioneer. He was one of the original immigrants to settle along the Niobrara river in Nebraska during the 1880s and had vigorously recruited many families to migrate near his homestead. He became a dominant figure in the region. Sandoz was often the victim of her father's violent temper and their relationship was strained, yet she saw his compassionate side in his relationship with the Indians who lived on a nearby Sioux reservation. These Indians were frequent guests of the Sandoz family. During their visits Sandoz heard many colorful stories of past Indian wars and such historical figures as Chief Sitting Bull and General George A. Custer. These stories influenced her use of idioms and enabled her to employ the symbolic language patterns of the Sioux. After the publication of Old Jules Sandoz spent the remainder of her career researching and writing about the Western frontier.

Sandoz's nonfiction is collectively known as The Great Plains Series or The Trans-Missouri Series. Crazy Horse (1942), the first book published in this series, is a picturesque biography of Chief Crazy Horse. Sandoz researched his life through government files and included Indian folktales she had heard as a child. Critical reception to the book was generally positive, although some critics maintained that Sandoz's method of writing from the point of view of an Indian made the book difficult to read. Cheyenne Autumn (1953) is an epic chronicle of a group of Cheyennes and their two-thousand-mile march from an Oklahoma reservation back to their Montana homeland. Although most critics praised Sandoz for the book's authenticity and scholarship, some questioned her objectivity, charging that she was overly sympathetic toward the Indians. The remaining three books of the Great Plains Series, The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Cattlemen (1958), and The Beaver Men (1964), are also historical studies of the American West.

Sandoz has also written several novels for both adult and juvenile readers. Her adult novels never received the critical attention accorded her nonfiction. However, her first novel, Slogum House (1937), became notorious for its plot and strong language. Set in a mythical Nebraska county, Slogum House is about a ruthless woman and her quest for power and wealth. To achieve her goal, she offers her daughters to influential men in exchange for political and business favors, and openly encourages her sons to murder anyone who opposes her. This book was banned in Omaha and in several other Nebraska libraries. Capital City (1939) is an allegorical novel about the threat of fascism in modern American society. Although critics compared this book with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, they found its message too sensational to be credible.

Sandoz's keen sense of history is prevalent throughout her work. She eloquently explored the conflict between the Plains Indians and the settlers, and recorded the Indian's demise in journalistic, yet lyrical prose. Having grown up on the prairie, Sandoz was attuned to nature and recognized the need to protect and preserve it. Although she deeply regretted the ways in which the West was finally conquered by the white man, critics believe that her vibrant love of the land and of America itself prevail in her work.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)