I’ve resigned myself to the craving to read more books written by Mari Sandoz this summer. Her reputation in Nebraska and national literary circles is stellar. I simply haven’t been ready for her literature until now.
My latest read is Love Song To The Plains. I was a bit skittish when I saw the title, but then I remembered that I was pulling the book from the non-fiction stacks and not from Sandoz’s novels. I didn’t bother to read the dust jacket notes because I simply wanted to read the book.
It turns out that Love Song To The Plains is an excellent history book. It was published as Sandoz’s contribution to a series of books penned by other authors that depict the various regions of the United States. The other books in the series by Harper and Brothers included, Massachusetts: There She Is, Behold Her by Henry F. Howe; South Carolina: Annals of Pride and Protest by William Francis Guess; Yankee Kingdom: Vermont and New Hampshire by Ralph Nading Hill; and Virginia: A New Look at the Old Dominion by Marshall W. Fishwick.
From page one, Sandoz brings her subject into context. She describes the Louisiana Territory purchase, then brings the reader’s focus to the matter at hand.
“Half of this region was the old Nebraska Territory that lay like a golden hackberry leaf in the sun, a giant curling, tilted leaf. The veins of it were the long streams rising out near the mountains and flowing eastward to the Big Muddy, the wild Missouri….”
What a wonderful description of the Nebraska map, pure, sweet prose. If I’d have bothered to read this book when I was a schoolboy, I’d have become an historian instead of a media worker.
After introducing the original Nebraska Territory to the reader, Sandoz backtracks to prehistoric times for a quick glance at the time when Amerindians were the sole race of humans in the Americas. Soon, she introduces the Spanish and French explorers and traders.
The greatest share of the book takes place in latter half of the 19th Century as the settlers of European ancestry settled into the upper Great Plains. There are the conflicts between cattle ranchers and the settlers. Also, the gradual but massive genocide of the native American population is a backdrop to much of what is described throughout the book.
A good share of Sandoz’s work deals with the sobering details of the terrible hardships of the pioneers. Harsh climate and weather conditions, murderous ranchers, highly corrupt politicians, raiding Indians, and the accompanying emotional strains.
Not all is serious. There are passages that tell of the cultural traditions and celebrations the emmigrants brought with them from back east and their native countries. The commeraderie of the small villages that grew up around the homesteads and claims are mentioned. Favorable, keen descriptions of the native tribal peoples are brought forth for the reader’s consideration as well.
I think one of the best highlights is the dark comedy of the territorial capitol disputes. By much questionable political maneuvering, Omaha City became the capital of the territory, but not without much animosity from other towns and interests. In the fray, was much violence.
“Two Missouri residents claimed to represent the same Nebraska county. One, a preacher who wanted to act as chaplain, promised Speaker Hanscom to vote for Omaha, and after he got the contested seat said his conscience compelled him to vote against the town. ‘You’re a damned infernal lying old hypocrite,’ he was told. If there was to be any more praying to be done, the Speaker would do it himself.
It had ended in a brawl, with any refractory member, meaning against Omaha, who refused to take his seat and shut up on orders from Speaker Hanscom, warned that he would be knocked down. In the crowded lobbies, the factions armed themselves with bludgeons, brickbats and pistols, but the killings, if any, had to wait for another day.”
Before the eventual move to Douglas City, renamed Lancaster, and ultimately, Lincoln, with Nebraska statehood in March of 1867, things only became more colorful.
The book ends in 1961 with Sandoz’s futurist, utopian vision of subterranian highways powered by nuclear energy. This is an important, albeit greatly overlooked book. For anyone who wishes to know more about the “Flyover state” of Nebraska, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better book. If you’re a Nebraskan who has neglected Mari Sandoz, I can only hope you pick up a copy of this work.
Love Song To The Plains Copyright 1961 by Mari Sandoz. Published by Harper & Brothers. No ISBN for this edition.
CiaoThe Blue Jay of Happiness thinks that the Indians’ description of the “tear tear bird” in the book, refers to the blue jay species.