I can’t say exactly when I read the first of Mari Sandoz’ works, but it was shortly after I moved to South Dakota. The book was Old Jules, a biography of her father Jules Sandoz, and it changed my way of looking at the world and at American history. Not by 180 degrees, but perhaps … fifteen of them. Moving the needle away from the romanticization of the “pioneer.”
She was born in the rural Midwest, near Hay Springs, Nebraska, on May 11, 1896, of a domineering, brutal, self-centered father and a mother who treated her like a plow horse.American Society of Authors and Writers: It Happened in History
I had never read anything like it. Unsentimental and unsparing in its description of a flinty, leather-tough and often very cruel man. But when I finished it I felt like I really began to understand what it meant to live on the frontier.
The genius of Sandoz’s treatment of her father in Old Jules is in the careful balance she maintains between Jules as monster and Jules as pioneer hero. “Only the strong and courageous, the ingenious and stubborn, remained,” she wrote, describing hard times in the Panhandle. Despite his shortcomings as a father, Old Jules embodied such qualities. His daughter’s portrayal of him reveals a complex portrait, part tribute, part exposé. Within a single scene, even within a single sentence, Sandoz mingles joy and sorrow, nostalgia and outrage.American Society of Authors and Writers: It Happened in History
Sandoz wrote about the land she grew up in, the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is buried there, near Gordon NE. I have spent a few hours in that territory, which I found to be beautiful in the lonesomest way possible. The sandhills are dunes covered with grass that stretch on and on. Poke a finger through the sod and find only sand.
The sandhills roll away toward the sun
Prehistoric dunes enclosed in grass
Curved like a woman’s body
And my eyes stare all indecently
Another excellent book by Sandoz is Cheyenne Autumn. It is the account of the desperate attempt of a band of Cheyennes to return from imprisonment in Oklahoma to their home territory near what is now Yellowstone Park. It was a journey of 1500 miles, a heartbreaking story to tell and to read. But it is also an epic story of the sort of courage and determination that must be admired and respected.
Two hundred and seventy Native Americans began the trip, just over one hundred completed it.
I find it interesting that two more classic pieces of writing about pioneer times were O Pioneers and My Antonia, both written by Willa Cather, also a Nebraskan. These women lived at roughly the same time and in the same state.
When you drive through Nebraska on Interstate 80 these days, sucking in the exhaust fumes from the endless procession of semi-trailers that travel this road, it might be hard to see who would in the world would live there and why they would write about it. You absolutely have to get off the interstate to get the feel of the place. But then, in which state is this not true?
Yesterday afternoon we had a mild thunderstorm, but there was more than a little bit of crackling out there as a light rain fell. Our younger cat, Willow, came indoors at the first drop on her fur, and very loud and very indignant was she.
But not Poco. He stood his ground out there under the deck off the kitchen, even though the rain could get at him through the gaps in the decking floor. Age has quieted his roar a bit, but he is still the lion of the back yard.
Poco joined our family as a tiny kitten who wandered out of the tall grass to claim his place. And he has been resolutely an outdoor cat ever since. It’s been years since he caught a mouse, but there is no doubt that he prefers to spend his daytimes al fresco, even as the radius of his wanderings has shrunk to the borders of our property.
When the animal behaviorists describe how cats have never truly been domesticated, but are still wild animals who have chosen to share our living spaces for the sake of convenience, it does not come as news to Robin and I. You had only to watch this old gentleman of his species throughout his life to see their theories in action.
When you’d rather huddle outdoors in a chilly downpour than walk ten feet to somewhere warm and dry … .
Yesterday was the 31st anniversary of a wedding that took place in Yankton, South Dakota. Robin and I had starring roles in this epic drama, which closed after a single performance. We decided that we are awfully glad that we went through with it, which is something to say after more than three decades, and have renewed our contracts.
At the reception, the first song that I had set up to be played by the band, where the bride and groom danced alone, was this tender ballad. The band leader allowed that it while it was not the traditional sort of tune for such an occasion, he would go through with it.
Playing their cover of the more traditional song that I arranged to follow immediately, obviously pleased him more.
(The second guitar break, at 4:32, kills me every time I play it)
As far as I was concerned, both tunes were spot on, then and now.