A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”

Nebraska’s Sandhills

Having previously traversed parts of Nebraska, my husband and I had read about its Sandhills (or Sand Hills), and heard them mentioned by friends as an attractive destination. In May of this year, we explored Nebraska’s panhandle, which abuts Colorado’s northeast corner and which is home to the western portion of the Sandhills. Without much research, we did not know what to expect. Would they resemble Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, or New Mexico’s White Sands?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rolling hills they were, but from a distance their sandy substrate was not immediately obvious. As a result of wind and time, plant seeds have been transported and deposited there, taken root, and transformed a barren aggregate of granules into a landscape of lush, green mounds and valleys. They cover an area of about 20,000 square miles and occupy an elevation that ranges from 1,800 feet in the east, to 3,600 feet in the west. Teeming with wildlife typical of the Great Plains to which the Sandhills technically belong, and being part of the Central Flyway, I encountered several birds for the first time, or, in the case of the Ring-necked Pheasant, reacquainted myself with a species that used to be common in Germany during my childhood, but whose numbers there have since declined.

Our flexible itinerary underwent adjustments when two successive days of not merely rain, but downpour, foiled some of our plans. From Oshkosh, where we had spent the night in a motel, rather than in the tent as desired, we reached Chimney Rock National Historic Site and Scott’s Bluff National Monument, both located along the North Platte River, and both significant landmarks for those traveling overland on the Mormon Pioneer, the Oregon, and the California Trails. While we learned much about those emigrant trails and their travelers at both visitor centers, we caught only wet glimpses of the outdoors, instead of hiking it as intended.

Likewise at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where our journey took us next. Its visitor center offered information not only about local fossil finds, but also housed the impressive collection of one of the local settlers, James. H. Cook, who befriended Red Cloud, a well-known Sioux Chief. He donated many personal items to Mr. Cook that are representative of the Plains Indians culture and offer valuable insight into everyday life and native customs.

To complete our circle back to Oshkosh, I chose a route leading past Fort Robinson and Chadron, then to and through Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which promised a wealth of birdlife, as did several smaller neighboring lakes dotting the map. Unbeknownst to us, even though we had left the rain behind, the plentiful precipitation of four-plus inches in twenty-four hours, in addition to high water tables from previous rains, had resulted in the flooding of low-lying stretches of a number of roads. The birds loved the expanded watery realm and were thick not purely in the usual ponds, but also in the temporary bodies of water created by the rains. This windfall (or, to be exact, waterfall), afforded me close looks at a variety of waterfowl; at the elegant Upland Sandpiper, previously glimpsed only once; at an American Bittern, an elusive bird, and an addition to my life list. It pretended to be a reed, as is its wont, but did not call. For an opportunity to hear its unusual vocalization, please click on the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

These heady experiences came, however, at the cost of several white-knuckled, heart-skipping moments, on account of multiple water crossings. Our old and trusted Subaru with nearly 225,000 miles on the odometer did not let us down, and we breathed a sigh of profound relief when we realized that we did not have to wade through calf-deep water to seek help to get towed. In retrospect, it was foolish and entirely uncharacteristic for us to continue on this route, but once we had forded a couple of flooded segments, we did not want to turn around and re-live those. I was also beguiled by the avifauna which might have impaired my judgment, but my husband, a birder only by association, did not even get a similar pay-off as I, and had to maneuver the car through the watery depths to boot.

Honey, I appreciate your never-ending support and your willingness to accompany me to locales that allow me to indulge in my favorite hobby.