MARI SANDOZ was born on May 11, 1896, in northwestern Nebraska, the setting for most of her novels and nonfiction. The daughter of Swiss homesteaders who expected her to be a farm wife, Sandoz's literary career was alien to her family, particularly to her father, whose life she chronicled in Old Jules ( 1935).
Because her childhood home was near two Lakota reservations, and because her father was an early supporter of Indian rights, much of Sandoz's work is dedicated to revising aspects of Indian history. Her nonfiction is supplemented by her ability to draw on accounts of historical events told to her by Indians, giving Sandoz's work a veracity not often found in mid-twentieth-century accounts of conflicts between Indians and whites. In Cheyenne Autumn ( 1953), for example, she draws on the memories of an old Cheyenne woman, who was one of the last survivors of the violent encounters that Sandoz writes about in the book. Cheyenne Autumn attempts to explain the discrepancies between the U.S. Army's version of a Cheyenne rebellion and stories of the rebellion told by the Indians, white eyewitnesses, and records in pictograph books.
Much of Sandoz's work is politically oriented, either implicitly or explicitly. In New York she was involved with various leftist organizations, and she often spoke out against what she perceived to be the rapacious and destructive exploitation of the Western frontier. Her Great Plains series documents changing attitudes toward the land, and in the struggles between man and nature, her sympathies seem usually to be with nature. The first book in the series, Old Jules, tells the story of how the immigrants "settled" the west, using her family as an example. Unlike other representations of immigrant settlement, however, Sandoz's book portrays the brutality and ugliness of life on the farm, particularly in the ways that women were treated by their husbands, brothers, and fathers. In the same series, Sandoz also included two biographies of Indians: Crazy Horse ( 1942), and Cheyenne Autumn.
In what many consider to be her finest novel, Slogum House ( 1937), Sandoz continues the process of desentimentalizing the West. Gulla Slogum is an unscrupulous woman who deceived her husband into marrying her, and she drives her daughters to prostitution and her sons to everything but murder. Gulla's greed comes close to destroying the entire family; it is only through the efforts of her one good daughter, Libby, that the family name is salvaged. Family life in Slogum House