By Deb Carpenter-Nolting
Previously published in the Gering Citizen and the Western Nebraska Observer
October 21, 2010
Mary Susette had her right breast removed in May 1954, when she was 58 years old. Mary Susette was a writer, and she wrote up to the last minute before she was taken in for surgery, and then for the eight days she was in the hospital. The day after her surgery, she dictated to her secretary a fantasy story of a little man who fell in love with a dragonlike creature.
After she left the hospital, she felt her incision wasn’t healing as quickly as it should, so she followed a method that was used by Colonel Dodge in Kansas in 1870. He had soldiers expose their undressed stubborn wounds to air and wind. Since she was not in Kansas, she modified the remedy and sat before a fan in her New York apartment until the incision scabbed over. Then she resumed her life.
She was her busiest now, and at the top of her game, following a grueling schedule to promote her latest book.
The next few years she spent arguing with publishers, promoting new books, making television appearances, always researching, always writing.
She stopped long enough to have her other breast removed in January of 1964. She felt her first mastectomy had given her ten good years, so she was hopeful this operation would allow her time to finish the several books she had planned.
She recuperated more slowly this time, but by June she was crisscrossing America doing research. In October of 1964, she flew to Omaha and Lincoln to promote one of her books on the Great Plains. The flight home was excruciating, and later that month, she was fatigued and in pain. She went in for a checkup and discovered the cancer had spread to her bones. She continued to write, however, even though the bone cancer made every task painful and difficult.
Mary Susette was hospitalized in March of 1965. Her niece came to New York to act as her secretary, taking care of her mail, typing manuscripts, and then re-typing them after her aunt read and corrected them. When Mary Susette got out of the hospital and was able to manage on her own, she sent her niece home and became a recluse.
She worked on the proofs of her latest book until February of 1966, but had to return to the hospital at the end of the month. This time, she did not write. Perhaps that is what finally killed her. Mary Susette died March 10, 1966. Her body was brought back to Nebraska and she was buried on a hill overlooking the family homestead.
Mary Susette had grown up in the sandhills of Nebraska, when the land was first opened to settlers. Her family had a hardscrabble existence on the frontier, but it was proving ground for this young woman. She learned to work hard and persevere even when faced with adversity.
When she was twelve, she wrote a story that appeared in the Omaha Daily News, but was promptly locked in the cellar by her father as a punishment. Years later, in 1926, she received honorable mention for a story she had written about the sandhills, entitled, "Fearbitten." Her father wrote to her, saying, "You know I consider writers and artists the maggots of society."
She used the name Marie Macumber from the time of her marriage (1914), even after her divorce, until 1929, the year after her father died. She then changed it back to Sandoz, and used an altered version of her first name. Most of us recognize the name of the author Mari Sandoz.
What we often overlook are the difficulties she overcame to become one of Nebraska’s most revered authors. English was not her first language. She spoke Swiss German until she entered school at the age of nine. She was not able to complete her education because she was expected to help raise her siblings and work the farm. Her mother was not affectionate. Her father was volatile and often abusive.
She lost the sight in one eye due to snowblindness and her hands looked like a farmer’s hands. A bone in one hand had been broken by her father, and she carried the knobby reminder the rest of her life.
In her early teens, she sneaked off the place and rode horseback almost twenty miles to Rushville to take the test that would grant her a teacher certificate. She taught school and married and continued to write, and after a few brief years divorced her husband, citing “mental cruelty.” She moved to Lincoln, attended classes at the University of Nebraska, worked enough to pay her bills, survived on tea and sugar and crackers, researched, and wrote.
During that time, even though she worked at her craft and sent her work out, she had very few stories published. She kept a scrapbook of rejections. On the rare occasions she did publish something, she received no encouragement from her father, but rather rebukes.
It is ironic that her father’s deathbed wish was for her to write about his life, and that her success as an author is directly attributable to that book, “Old Jules,” which was rejected thirteen times before finally being published in 1935.
In her lifetime, Mari Sandoz wrote and published 22 books and numerous short stories and essays. She was respected as a historian, a writer, and a storyteller. How many more stories and books could she have written if her breast cancer had not spread?
In 1964, when Mari was in Nebraska promoting “The Beaver Men,” one of her books in the series on the Great Plains, Nebraska declared October 18-24 as Mari Sandoz Week. Forty-six years later, during Breast Cancer Awareness month, we can again honor Mary Susette Sandoz, and pay tribute to this woman who overcame numerous hardships in her life. It’s unfortunate that the one hardship she could not conquer was breast cancer.