Who was Old Jules?
Born in 1859 to a middle-class family in French-speaking Switzerland, Jules Ami Sandoz was studying medicine when, in around 1881, he argued with his family. He variously claimed that it was over his allowance – did they expect him to do his own laundry? –
or his affair with Rosalie Effrecht, a postal clerk some years older than him and not quite of his class. Buried in the archives at the University of Nebraska, however, lies a hint that he had shot a man in an argument. That more readily explains why a dapper young man of some intellect and learning should take flight, not just to the United States, not just to the West, but way beyond the line of settlement to the bleak and forbidding Sandhills of the Nebraska Panhandle, land which appeared on most maps as The Great American Desert.
The full story, of course, is in 'Old Jules'
. In brief, it goes like this. Out in Nebraska Jules abandoned one wife, possibly pregnant, saw a second descend into insanity,
and was himself deserted by a third who had come mail order but left after two weeks, appalled by his personal habits and rudimentary domestic facilities.
A fourth, Mary Fehr, was not so lucky. She had arrived in Nebraska to marry another fellow, but he wasn’t at the depot to meet her train. Jules took her home, and it wasn’t long before she was married and pregnant. Born in 1896, Mari Sandoz was the first of their six children.
Life for a pioneer farmer out in the Sandhills was tough. The land was dry and unpromising, the weather brutal in its extremes. This region was best suited to ranching, and Jules was soon at odds with the cattlemen. An irascible and volatile character, he was a fearsome enemy. As a husband and father he expected total, blind obedience and would mete out violence to anyone who crossed him. As the eldest, Mari saw the worst of his temper.
His story – of struggles with the cattlemen, with the land, with his family - would never have been told had not Mari defied him. In a sense, his story would become his daughter’s. At eighteen she left home and married. Her husband turned out to be another violent man, and a drinker. After five years she divorced him, moving east to Lincoln to pursue her calling, to be an author – a profession her father decried. As he wrote to her, "writers and artists are the maggots of society."
In the capital city she pursued her researches into the history of her region with vigour and determination. Still her father scorned her work, yet as he lay dying, in 1928, he asked her – almost meekly – whether she was still writing, and suggested that maybe
she should tackle his story some time. Previously he had proclaimed, ‘I’m too busy making history to write it.’ And in a sense he was. Himself a dogged researcher into botany and agriculture, he had shown that, given the right sort of plant selection, the correct methods of cultivation, it was possible to grow good quality fruit out in the hills. But the fact that all his children, except Mari, went into cattle is probably the final judgement on his enterprises.
After years of painstaking research Mari wrote and re-wrote 'Old Jules'
. She was just about living on thin air when she submitted the fourteenth version for the Atlantic Monthly’s non-fiction prize in April 1935. The telegram that changed her life for good arrived in June, the book was published and met with huge critical approval. She was now set up for a life dedicated to writing.
The way she tells the story of her father’s life – warts and all – suggests a reconciliation. Yes, he was violent and brutal, pig-headed too, but in her mature view he needed to be all of those things in order to live out the pioneer dream of independent living in a new land, where the only law was the gun.