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 and perhaps her most important book, was first written as a novel and then revised several times as history. She had thoroughly researched her topic, and the work is indispensable for an understanding of the development of the northern Great Plains. The editors to whom she first showed it rejected it, however, considering it to be too dramatic to be entirely true; they also objected to her prose style.
Old Jules was her first achievement in the creation of the Trans-Missouri series, which she conceived early in her writing career. The books in this series–The Beaver Men, Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn, The Buffalo Hunters, The Cattlemen from the Rio Grande Across the Far Marias, and Old Jules–recount the history of the region from earliest historical time to the twentieth century; if she had lived long enough she would have concluded with an account of the development of the petroleum industry on the plains.
Although she was primarily devoted to the writing of history, Sandoz also produced novels throughout her career. Her early efforts, Slogum House and Capital City, were in part the products of her fear in the 1930’s of the rise of fascism in America, and the moral passion that motivated her is revealed in the allegorical methods she employed. Her later novels carry the weight of their social messages more easily. The most successful of them are Miss Morissa, the story of a frontier woman doctor whose character resembles Sandoz’s own, and Son of the Gamblin’ Man, the story of the father of the painter Robert Henri, whose passion to found a community in the West must have struck Sandoz as resembling that of her own father. She also wrote two short, highly regarded novels on Indian themes, The Horsecatcher and The Story Catcher.
Sandoz moved to New York in 1943 to be near research libraries and publishing houses. Except for research trips to the West and teaching at the University of Wisconsin in the summers from 1947 to 1955, she lived there for the rest of her life. In her last days she fought a heroic–and lonely–battle with cancer while she worked to complete her last book, The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Sandoz wrote three books that will be read as long as the frontier experience remains a vivid possession of the American imagination: Old Jules, Crazy Horse, and Cheyenne Autumn. In her description Jules Sandoz comes alive as a remarkably complex man–a romantic always dreaming of a freer life to the west and an idealized Europe to which he cannot return, yet a realist who struggles to create a community while brutalizing himself and those around him. His daughter’s success in rendering the complexity of a man whom she simultaneously feared and admired makes this book both a masterpiece of Western history and one of a handful of the most important works of American biography. Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn reveal a remarkable success in achieving empathy with the Plains Indian peoples, and the language Sandoz uses has been acclaimed as precisely suited to what the Indians would have used if they had been telling the stories.