This villain is one of the most frightening, despicable, slimy, pitiful characters to be found in American fiction. The figure is not scary because she has super powers, nor is she the dictator of a third world nation nor is she a vampire. She’s scary because she’s plausible.
Gulla Slogum is the main antagonist in Mari Sandoz’s brilliant 1937 novel Slogum House. Gulla is a wicked, scheming, conniving, greedy, gluttonous, hypocritical matriarch who will betray anybody, stranger, neighbor or kin for a piece of real estate and a dollar.
The main protagonist is Gulla’s husband, Ruedy. Even he was tricked into marriage by Gulla. Ruedy is not a squeeky-clean character, as the reader later finds out, but he remains basically good to the end. Ruedy is really the conscience of the family.
The Slogum family has settled in the Niobrara River valley. They live in a hulking two storey house topped off with a crows’ nest which serves as an observation deck to spy upon the land around the Slogum property.
One by one, we meet the rest of the family. A couple of sons who qualify as villains. The daughters, including a set of twins, are a mixed bag of bad and good. The reader understands that they are collaborators in the various schemes. One daughter, the hard-working Libby, is allied with Ruedy. Another set of twins is quite likeable. Ward and his sister Fanny are good hearted, but sickly, characters. Ward takes after his father, in that he’s mild-mannered and fair of character. This reader found himself rooting for Ward throughout the book.
From the 1880s through the Great Depression, acre by acre, land section by section, Gully grabs up the land of (fictional) Dumur County. Eventually, the county becomes two with Dumur County in the south and Slogum County in the north.
Because I’ve just published a review of Mari Sandoz’s Capital City, I was reluctant to write another one about the same author’s work in such a short time. But I found Slogum House to be well worth it. If I had events to do over again, I’d read Slogum House first then follow it up with Capital City in order to keep the stories in chronological order.
After I finished reading Slogum House, I decided to do some map gazing at my copy of A.S. Barne’s 1885 geography book map of Nebraska. It’s what a settler in the Niobrara valley would see back in the day.
The setting for Slogum House is along the Niobrara River in Northwest Nebraska. I located Mari Sandoz’s hometown of Gordon, in Sheridan County. I also spotted a settlement of some sort several miles Southwest of Gordon called “Sandoz”. One source from the Sheridan County tourist office reminds me that Mari’s father Jules, as in “Old Jules”, owned and operated a post office at that location.
The Northwest part of Nebraska is lonely and sparsely populated yet today. Many of the towns of yesteryear are no longer even ghost towns. But there is still ranching activity enough to keep the rest of the towns alive.
Rushville, in Sheridan County and Chadron in Dawes county are thriving, albeit small towns in the general area of the Slogum empire.
If you like frontier fiction with hard hitting action, Sandoz’s book is for you. If you like unsettling psychological twists and turns with that sort of book, find a copy of Slogum House soon.
Slogum House by Mari Sandoz, originally published by Little, Brown of Boston. The review copy is the paperback version, published by University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9123-X
The Blue Jay of Happiness says this book is a real page turner.