Hostiles & Friendlies (Review)

Some of the best books about frontier life in the Great Plains of North America were penned by women like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather.  Often overlooked are the writings of Mari Sandoz.  I don’t know why Sandoz gets short shrift.  I wonder if the reason has to do with her being a Nebraska native.  Nebraska is one of those forgotten flyover states.  Most of the world gives little or no thought about us.

I understand Nebraska being overlooked, but Mari Sandoz deserves higher praise.  She lived the hardtack life of early 20th Century Nebraska and South Dakota. Sandoz was the headstrong white girl who overcame great odds to become an esteemed writer.  Her experiences encompassed the hardships of early settlers and the Native Americans who lived among them.

I came across a new printing of a newer edition of some of Sandoz’s lesser known and unpublished works the other day at the Norfolk (Nebraska) Public Library.  Hostiles  & Friendlies: Selected Short Writings of Mari Sandoz is a book I was unaware of until recently.

There are a few weak parts of this collection, but I took into consideration that they were minor works or magazine articles tailored to casual readers of the day.  Most of the book more than makes up for these few flaws.

Hostiles & Friendlies displays Sandoz’s sensitive, yet strong approach to the life and times of people who lived in the Sandhlls of northwestern Nebraska.  The book opens with an abbreviated autobiographical sketch that sets the stage for the rest of the collection. Sandoz-03SittingBull

Sandoz is famous for her book about Crazy Horse, so I wasn’t surprised to find her story about the two Sitting Bulls in this smaller collection.  Sandoz tells about Plains Indian culture and reveals the maturity and intelligence of the peoples.  In the process, we witness the decimation of native culture and humiliation of their leaders. Sandoz describes this sad period of history in a balanced manner that doesn’t overly demonize the whites who displaced the Indians.

In the non-fiction portion of this book, Sandoz shares the stories in an intimate way through her personal observations.  Once, when Sandoz was only five-years-old, Buffalo Bill Cody spent a night at her family’s house.  The noise of his arrival awakened her from sleep so she got up to see who had come in. “There, in the light of our kitchen lamp, stood the handsomest man of my life, tall, in beaded buckskin, and with long white curls falling over his shoulders.”

The next morning Sandoz’s mother asked Mari to call Cody to breakfast but there was no reply to her knock.  So, “I pushed the door open a crack. Evidently Bill had gone duck hunting with my father, for the bed was empty, but on the bedpost hung that handsome head of curling hair. In that one moment, I learned something of disillusionment and something of the need for a second look, always a careful second look.”

Some of Sandoz’s most haunting words are found in the book’s short story section.  It’s in fiction that a writer is most free to tell the truth without much censorship.

The story that moves me most is “Mist and the Tall White Tower”.  The setting is at the reputed “most beautiful building in the World”, the then recently completed State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska. The story is told from the point of view of Irvy, a tragically down and out 13-year-old boy from Central Nebraska.  He has walked hundreds of miles to seek refuge in the home of his former teacher Lela Gray.

The story was written in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.  Irvy arrives in Lincoln, and finds a hidden part of the capitol building’s lawn to rest from his journey. “The Capitol tower stood straight and tall over the shimmering, dusty heat of the flat Sandoz-02prairie town. Alone it pierced the sky –timeless, enduring, a fluted shaft of stone and gleaming windows arising high from its broad base on terraced lawns to the banding of blue thunderbirds.”

Soon, other homeless people also settle into the lawn, so Irvy blends into the crowd and is able to better relax. He studies the architecture of the building and its tall stone tower as a way to distract himself from his tired muscles and aching hunger pangs.

The next morning he enters the capitol building and finds himself being passively drawn into a group of school children in their field trip’s guided tour of the building. It is within the tower that Irvy nearly meets his demise. No, I won’t spoil the ending.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Mari Sandoz and whether or not you live in the Great Plains, this small book is well worth reading.  Not only will you learn about Plains Indians, pioneer settlers, and rural life in the early 20th Century, you’ll find some deeply satisfying writing.

{ Hostiles & Friendlies: Selected Short Writings of Mari Sandoz originally published by The University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln, Nebraska and London, UK; Bison Book paperback edition, 254 pages, first printed in 1992. ISBN: 0-8032-9208-2 }

moi1988bThe Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Mari Sandoz. “Indians still consider the whites a brutal people who treat their children like enemies – playthings, too, coddling them like pampered pets or fragile toys, but underneath always like enemies, enemies that must be restrained, bribed, spied upon, and punished.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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