Mary (Marie) Susette Sandoz, daughter of Jules Ami and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz, was born at Sandoz Post Office on Mirage Flats, Running Water Precinct, Sheridan County, Nebraska, on May 11, 1896. The family moved from the “River Place” in 1910 to another homestead 33 miles south of Gordon in the Nebraska Sandhills. This second homestead is commonly known as the Sandhills or Orchard Place.
Jules Sandoz came from an aristocratic Swiss family. He was a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of his daughter reading or writing. He shunned the trappings of civilization and worked his family like hired help. The majority of young Marie’s childhood was spent in hard labor on the farm or helping her mother raise the five younger children. Marie developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family’s cattle out of a snowdrift with her brother. Marie was greatly influenced by her father's personality, his acquaintances who visited the homestead, and the country in which they lived. She knew trappers, traders, Indians and Indian fighters, and learned their stories and their background. Her ability to remember or “catch” these stories would later lead to her moniker – Story catcher of the Plains.
Her inability to speak English, the languages predominately spoken in the home were French and German, somewhat limited her early education, but she learned the language and attended school irregularly until the age of sixteen. After graduating from the eighth grade, she took the rural teachers’ exam and passed. Marie taught in nearby country schools. At age eighteen, she married a neighboring rancher, Wray Macumber. The marriage was an unhappy one and the couple divorced in 1919. Marie then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Despite or in spite of her lack of a high school diploma, she managed to enroll at the Lincoln Business College in 1920 and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, thanks to a sympathetic dean, in 1922. Marie took classes as she could, but always continued writing. During these years, she received over a thousand rejection slips for her short stories. However, her work entitled "The Peachstone Basket," won her honorable mention in the 1926 Harper Intercollegiate Short Story Contest.
During the sixteen years, Marie, still going by her married name Macumber, lived in Lincoln, she held a variety of low-paying jobs. She worked as a reader in the English Department, proofreader and researcher at the Nebraska State Historical Society, and associate editor for School Executive Magazine. The campus magazine Prairie Schooner was regularly the recipient of her further literary efforts.
In November 1928, Marie received word that her father was dying. She visited him in the Alliance (Nebraska) hospital and was shocked by his final request – to write his life story. She began extensive research on his life and documenting his decision to become a pioneer.
On June 26, 1929, literary agent June Margaret Christie suggested that Marie Macumber use the pen name “Mari Sandoz.” After that, Marie Macumber was gone and Mari Sandoz was born.
The book, Old Jules, was completed in 1933. The book would be rejected, at least once, by every major publisher in the United States. She briefly gave up writing burning over seventy of her manuscripts. Malnourished and in poor health, she moved back to the Sandhills and lived with her mother.
Mari returned to Lincoln in January 1934 and continued working on Slogum House, Capital City, and revising – and resubmitting – Old Jules.
Mari received word in March 1935 that her most recent version of Old Jules won a non-fiction contest held by Atlantic Press. Before this work could be published, however, she would begin the long standing battle with editors over the right to retain her distinctive Western idioms rather than use standardized English.
The book was well-received critically and commercially when it was issued, and became a Book of the Month Club selection. Some readers were shocked at her unromantic depiction of Old Jules, as well as her strong language and realistic portrayal of the hardships of frontier life. Others, closer to the Sandoz family, were shocked at the secrets that Mari shared about her family and the Sandoz family neighbors.
Sandoz’ next works brought her notoriety of a different nature: hate mail and threats. Slogum House (1937) was perceived as an attack on the character of rural Nebraskans and the graphic nature of the book led to the book being banned in some cities, including Omaha, Nebraska. Capital City was considered and assault on the city of Lincoln and those in Nebraska state government.
Mari moved to Denver in 1940 partially to escape the backlash and partially to be closer to the resources she would need for her research for books including The Cattlemen and The Battle of Little Big Horn.
In 1942 Mari moved to New York in order to be closer to her publishers. It was difficult for Mari to advocate for her work when she was so far away from the publishers and editors. More importantly to most of Mari’s fans, her monumental biography of the great Lakota leader Crazy Horse was published. Sandoz was ahead of her time by writing biography from within the Lakota point of view using Lakota concepts, metaphors, and speech patterns.
Sandoz encouraged writers whenever she could. She presented summer writing workshops at institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She reviewed manuscripts sent to her by aspiring authors and taught creating writing through programming produced by Nebraska Educational Television.
Mari was fortunate in that she was able to see the value of her work during her lifetime. In 1950, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and in 1954 she received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska for her “sincere and realistic presentation of Nebraska as it was.”
Her proudest honor came in 1955. She returned to the Sandhills to spend Christmas with her family. The sign as she approached Gordon, Nebraska, which had read “Home of Old Jules Sandoz” since 1935 had been changed to “Home of Mari Sandoz.”
By 1964 she knew that she had cancer. That year Mari received the Saddleman Award, now called the Owen Wister Award, and the Western Writers of America “Spur Award for Best Juvenile Book for The Storycatcher.
Mari Sandoz, in spite of failing health, spent her later years actively writing, lecturing, and visiting the land and people she wrote about. She died of bone cancer in New York on March 1966, and was returned for burial on the family farm south of Gordon, Nebraska.
Her Great Plains series stands as her central achievement because of its singular interpretation of the High Plains region from the Stone Age period to the twentieth century. In addition to Old Jules and Crazy Horse, the other books in this series include The Buffalo Hunters, The Cattlemen, and The Beaver Men. The final book in the series was to be about oil. Unfortunately, Sandoz passed before it could be written.
The Nebraska Library Association established the Mari Sandoz Award in 1969.It is given annually to “significant, enduring contribution to the Nebraska book world through writing, film production, or related activity.”
Mari was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in the State Capitol Building in 1975-1976 and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center's Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1998
“As a resident of western Nebraska, Mari Sandoz participated firsthand in the settlement of one of the last "free" land areas of the continental United States -- the Kinkaid period of the twentieth century. Although her scars were no greater, and no less, than those of the thousands who experienced the same thing, she was the one who put them down in writing. Mari Sandoz has left each of us with a richer appreciation of our past and a clearer vision of our future through her 22 published books and numerous short stories and essays”. – Gordon City Library; Gordon, Nebraska