After enjoying each of the books by Mari Sandoz that I’ve brought home from the Norfolk Public Library this summer, I told myself, I’ll write just one more review. Well, the latest read has only increased my enthusiasm for more. I don’t know, yet, whether or not to write any more reviews of her books.
Mari Sandoz’s 1960 novel Son Of The Gamblin’ Man kept me spellbound to the very end. It feels peculiar to me that I found a book about Cozad, Nebraska interesting enough to even raise an eyebrow. However, the story left me outraged and angry. The place is a small town of less than 4,000 residents in Southern Nebraska. I may have driven through town once or twice, I don’t remember.
Sandoz had been approached by the lone surviving nephew of John J. Cozad to write the story of Cozad and Cozad’s son the famous artist. By the early 1940s, Sandoz had enough background information to feel confident to interview people in Cozad, Nebraska about the two men. She wanted a detailed non-fiction account. The locals didn’t want to talk. So the author put the project on hold until the 1950s when parts of the tale were written up by other writers.
Still, many details of the relationship of the Cozad family and its namesake town remained hazy. Sandoz decided to fill in the details of the facts. The book project changed from non-fiction to historical fiction. Most of the names have not been changed and the foundational events are accurately portrayed.
The story opens with the nattily dressed John J. Cozad walking down the siding of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. He spots a large sign marking the 100th Meridian. He stops there and looks over the expanse of prairie all around him.
This is when he decides to found a new settlement. He indulges some hubristic dreams that his new town will be a major trading center. He even goes so far as to imagine that the nation’s capital city would relocate to his location. Then he snaps to attention as a handcar approaches him on the tracks.
John J. Cozad made his fortune by developing real estate and gambling at faro tables. After spotting the 100th Meridian, he returned to Cincinnati, Ohio to recruit settlers for his dream city. Cozad envisioned a wholesome community filled with peaceful, energetic, enthusiastic citizens from back east. He would discourage drinking, gambling and crime.
The Dawson County town grew to be a rival of the County Seat town of Plum Creek. Plum Creek represented everything that the residents of Cozad abhored.
In spite of good intentions, Cozad town suffered through crop failures, drought, gigantic swarms of grasshoppers, and other depredations. The town was harrassed by greedy ranchers and cowboys. The worst being the Olive gang of cowboys who were so bad, they were chased out of Texas. Print Olive and his murderous crew wanted to monopolize all the land of Dawson County and beyond for cattle ranching. The county officials in Plum Creek became, effectivly, tools of the Olive gang and allied ranching outfits.
After awhile, the people of Cozad town became disenchanted with their town. The population soon was composed of malcontents, rednecks, and schemers. A mutiny took place to oust John Cozad from town. The mutineers renamed the town “Gould” after the New York financier Jay Gould in hopes that the tycoon would send money to the town. The town did revert back to its original name during the next presidential administration.
The story of John Cozad is told in parallel with that of his second son, Robert Henry Cozad, nicknamed “The Son Of The Gamblin’ Man”. Robert was encouraged by his father and mother to develop his talent for writing and drawing. The reader finds out that Robert grows up to become Robert Henri, the famous painter who was at the heart of the “Ashcan School” of design.
The Sandoz book is a fierce page turner filled with the struggles of the pioneer spirit, horse thieves, violent cowboys, the hint of maurading indians, betrayal, harsh weather, insect plagues, economic disaster and familial devotion.
Whether or not you care about Nebraska history or the small town of Cozad, you shouldn’t neglect this exciting work of historical fiction.
Son Of The Gamblin’ Man by Mari Sandoz, 1960 by Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska and London, UK. ISBN 0-8032-5833-X
The Blue Jay of Happiness gives this book his highest cheer cheer rating.