The Unlikely Friendship between Mari Sandoz and Charley Sears
Charley Sears rode his horse through the long prairie grass seemingly oblivious to the little girl watching him in the grass. That little girl, with a baby on her hip, watched him ride away, and when she thought it was safe to stand to watch him disappear over the prairie, he turned to see her, and lifted his hand in a typical western greeting.
Thus, began a rather unlikely friendship.
Mari Sandoz was that little girl watching from her hiding spot in the grass as her new neighbor, Charley Sears rode by on the way to his home. He had purchased land with a house already built on it. The house and land had belonged to Pat and was said to be haunted. It had been struck at all four-corners by lightning. Even Pat met with an unfortunate end after marketing a phenomenal wheat crop, he was found dead the next morning after choking to death in the wagon.
This story with all its personal qualities, giving us glimpses into the life and heart of Mari Sandoz, touched me in a deep, personal way. The sort of friendship that grew between Charley and Mari seemed very unlikely during that time period.
During this time of Mari’s childhood, men were not friends with women typically, especially not young girls. Now, it is somewhat culturally acceptable for men and women to be friends, but in the early 20th century it just wasn’t so.
One could ask why Charley would purchase this land with the seeming curse on it, when he could have easily traveled further on and gotten better land, a better, more prosperous farm I am a firm believer in everything happens for a reason and has a purpose. Some of it we will never know, and this might fit that category. But I must think that in this instance there was a
deeper meaning to their friendship.
Charley really seemed like a doting uncle, to not only Mari but all her siblings as well. He took her under his wing, and he taught her how it feels to be loved, to be important. He brought her out of her shyness; he fostered in her a love of reading and writing. This was done both under the nose of Old Jules and against his rules. He had strictly forbidden Mari from
reading novels and from writing. She shares that her inability to read (at nine years of age) disturbed Charley and she told him that “going to school would not be permitted and she had not the shoes.” (page 46) Someone
saw to it that her age was reported to the county superintendent and she was allowed to attend school. If I were a betting woman, I would put my bottom dollar on Charley being the one who reported Mari’s age to the superintendent, thereby forcing her parents to allow her to attend
All because a man saw a little girl, deep inside her shell and longed to see her dance free. This story resonates with me for a few reasons. One of those is simply the story is very well written. It moves a long and keeps your attention. It is one of those stories that you never want to end. I found myself wanting to know all about Charley and Mari’s friendship, their
conversations. I longed to be able to watch them interact, to get to know them both more as people and not just characters in a book.
This passage from the story really stood out to me:
This man had tried to lead a peaked-faced, shy, and ashamed little girl down on the Niobrara to see that she could learn to be a person in her own right, a person outside of the comfort and security she might be for her small siblings. He made her see that perhaps she could live without too much embarrassment and shame over her shortcomings, no matter how barefooted she might have to remain. Perhaps she could learn to use a little of the tireless energy, the bald-outspokenness of her mother and yet Hostiles and Friendlies, Mari Sandoz page 50
retrain the excitability, the gloom and fault-finding that were also her inheritance. He showed her that the swift, almost murderous temper of her father need not be uncontrolled in her, even while she nursed a little of Old Jules’ fierce intellectual independence and any bit of his creative builder’s vision that, with luck he might have bred in her. (page 50)
This passage is written so that it lives in the eyes of the reader. It is more than just letters strung into words; more than just words put into sentences. These words live, if you look close enough and read them with your heart and not just your eyes, you can see the heartbeat of the man for the girl and in return the girl for the man. Charley Sears reached the heart of young Mari Sandoz, and her life was forever changed.
It is that living breath that speaks to my own heart. This passage made me remember and realize truths long-forgotten about my own story. It opened my eyes to see the blessing I had in the man who touched my life by befriending the young, backwards girl that I was. Maybe it stood out to me so much because I relate to it so much, it brings memories to the forefront of my mind; those bring a smile, sometimes a tear, and always a sense of well-being and immense gratitude.
I, too, was a very quiet little girl, with a difficult childhood. My home life was not easy or pleasant. It was a hard life, but into that life was brought someone who would teach me many things, much like Charley Sears taught Mari.
Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see the potential in us and to draw it out. They show us that what we think is our fate can indeed, be changed. Our parents and their mistakes do not have to define us, nor do we have to follow in their footsteps. We can see and learn that our inherited traits can be changed or channeled in different ways than those we saw
modeled before us.
These people take us by the hand and says, “Hey, look, here is a better way.” They speak encouraging truth into our life, while teaching us at the same time, much like Charley did when he, after finally getting Mari to laugh, cautioned her now and then, “little ladies don’t show their gums when they laugh.” They refine us, taking off our rough edges, teaching us how to not be
who and what we think we are and destined to be. They give us permission to dream more than a little dream.
This is what my friend taught me. Some of it I was eager and ready to hear, other bits of it I was not so excited and open. But still he persisted, just like Charley.
My friend was often telling me that my own choices were my own responsibility. I alone was to blame for my poor judgments and misdeeds. Just like Charley told Mari when he said, “If you got a bellyache it’s you that’s been eating the green apples.” (page 51) It was refreshing to
read this, especially in a society and a generation with the mindset of “take no responsibility as it is always someone else’s fault.” I think we have forgotten how to be responsible for eating our own green apples.
I wonder if we would have known about Mari Sandoz, if she would have written books and stories, if not for the influence of her friend, Charley Sears. We don’t have a crystal ball to see in to the past and what might have been, but we can sit and be thankful that a kind man saw a troubled little girl and loved her enough to desire to help her, to expand her horizons, to let her know there was a whole big world and life outside the walls of her home. We can be grateful that he opened her eyes to the world of books and writing, even knowing it was forbidden by her father.
Mari Sandoz grew up in a very patriarchal society, and Old Jules was the patriarch to end all patriarchs, but Charley was willing to buck the society to draw out the good in Mari, to teach her, to open her eyes to see the world beyond her own small home in the west. For him to do this, to buck the societal norms of the day, to me speaks loudly of his affection for Mari, and the potential he saw in her.
We owe a lot to this unlikely friendship.
Sandoz, Mari. Hostiles and Friendlies; Selected Short Writings. University of Nebraska Press, 1959.
She sat in the uncomfortable vinyl chair in the waiting room. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the chair, it was just your typical waiting room chair, designed to make you squirm with either eager anticipation or abject fear. Whichever one she was experiencing in that moment is a long-forgotten memory now, but she sat there and stared at her hands. They were clenched in her lap, her feet flat on the floor. She
didn’t know where she was or why she was there. She only knew she was told to “sit still and be quiet,” so she sat still and quiet.
People came and went from the room, sometimes names were called out by a disembodied voice, but still she sat. She could hear the swishing of the front door as people would enter or leave the building, even though there was a wall separating her and the rotating door. She contemplated leaving but knew she would get no further than that swishing door.
The place was Denver, Colorado. The brilliant Colorado sun shone brightly in through the glass in both the door and windows, but she was almost oblivious to its cheeriness. It was not until years later that she began to reflect on that sunshine and the way it played on the waiting room floor.
The little girl thought, at thirteen years of age, she was way too grown up for childish things like braids or ponytails, so her long chestnut hair hung heavy down her back, as she peered at the others in the waiting room through her heavy bangs.
She couldn’t tell you who had called her name, but soon it was her turn and she was led down the long hallway, around a corner to an open door on her left, she was ushered in and the door was closed behind her.
The man was tall, light haired, and standing across the room in front of a large desk, a large black office chair at his hip. Her gaze was transfixed on whatever was outside the large picture window behind the man.
“I’ll just turn off my hippy music,” he broke the silence as she slowly slipped in to the chair immediately to her left. She watched as he leaned over and silenced a radio she hadn’t known was playing.
Over the years this man taught the shy, withdrawn, frightened little girl from the Nebraska prairie, many things. The thing he taught her most was how to be loved and how to be a friend. Until he came into her life, she was unloved and unwanted. He showed her a new way to live, a new life. He was not one to ever mince words with her, “Your standards are so high, no one will continually risk rejection to be in your life.”
Those hard, harsh words were not ever meant to wound her, but to open her eyes to the truth. It wasn’t only harsh, seemingly unkind things he said to her. He was continually feeding her bits of encouragement that she did not receive from anyone else. He was the first one to call her a friend. He taught her the meaning of friendship. He showed her that she could be a real person, one that was seen and known. He took that ugly, quiet,
passionless little waif of a girl and breathed life into her, he showed her that she could have dreams beyond mere survival. He showed her by actions and words that she mattered and was important.
She had a nickname she hated, everyone used it, in fact, she herself thought it was her name until just before he came it her life. While her family used her nickname exclusively, she began putting her real name on everything. When he asked by which name she wanted to be called, she pointed, too shy to say it out-loud, at the real name. He became her hero that day as she heard him tell her family to heed her desires and call her by her real name.
It would not be until many years had passed and she was an old woman that she was able to articulate all he was to her, all he did for her. His friendship was a lifeline to a troubled girl and though many years have passed since they first met, she treasures the memories of her own unlikely friendship.