Nebraska writer Marion Marsh Brown

Marion Marsh Brown grew up in a hurry. She published her first story at age 10 and graduated from high school at age 14. Her beloved father died when she was a 15-year-old freshman at the Nebraska State Teacher’s College (today’s Peru State). She went on to become a writer of fiction for young readers, and Nebraska history played a prominent role in many of her stories.

Marion Marsh Brown grew up in a hurry. She published her first story at age 10 and graduated from high school at age 14. Her beloved father died when she was a 15-year-old freshman at the Nebraska State Teacher’s College (today’s Peru State). Brown’s family encouraged her to stay in school, and Brown graduated with high honors in three-and-a-half years. But it wasn’t easy being so much younger than her classmates.

Brown went on to a long career as both a teacher and novelist. She wrote fiction and biographies for middle school students, and many of her books reflect her southeast Nebraska roots and her love of Nebraska history. Dan Holtz tells her story in the Spring 2020 issue of Nebraska History.

It’s not hard to understand Holtz’s affinity for Brown. He’s a professor emeritus of history at Brown’s alma mater, and something of a historical storyteller himself. But while Brown wrote fiction, Holtz’s favorite medium is song (more about that below).

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Brown’s father had been a big influence on his precocious daughter. Cassius Brown was an early Nebraska newspaperman and an avid reader. When he died of tuberculosis, Brown’s family encouraged her to stay in school and get on with her life. In later years, Brown acknowledged that “it was a social handicap to be so young in college and certainly wouldn’t recommend it for any child today.”

Still, she was popular and active at Peru State, being voted the college’s “Representative Woman” in 1925, an award given to the student “most truly representing the School Spirit.”

Brown taught high school before joining the faculty at Peru State and later the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her first book, Young Nathan (1947) was a historical novel about Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale. In 1959, Disney turned her book The Swamp Fox into a TV series.

Other stories were set in Nebraska—but usually not the wide-open prairies that influenced Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. Brown’s Nebraska was centered on the wooded bluffs along the Missouri River. Her 1971 novel Marnie is the most autobiographical of her books.

Photo: Early 1900s postcard showing Peru, Nebraska, as young Marion Marsh knew it. History Nebraska RG2304-8-44

Brown also wrote two books about Willa Cather, a history of Brownville, plus fictionalized biographies of Nebraskans John G. Neihardt, Susette La Flesche Picotte (the first Native American  medical doctor), and Native American rights advocate Susan La Flesche Tibbles.

“She wrote primarily because she saw a need for more and better books for teenagers,” Holtz writes, “but also because she admired and was intrigued by Nebraska writers, because she believed Native Americans had been treated unjustly, because she wanted to recreate the stories of pioneering and settlement in the plains, and simply because she loved to write.”

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Dan Holtz shares Brown’s passion for Nebraska stories, but as musician he has a special appreciation for the power of song. In an earlier article for Nebraska History he examined “The Folk Songs of Homesteading.” He’s recorded a number of those folk songs himself, and as a “historical songteller” writes and records original songs about Nebraska history. You can listen to them at his website, https://www.storysingerdanholtz.com/.

Dan’s article, “Marion Marsh Brown: A Continuing Legacy in Nebraska Writing,” appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. Learn more about how you can receive the magazine by becoming a History Nebraska member.

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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