Get a glimpse into the lives of the early homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers of the American frontier through these top ten nonfiction books about life on the prairie.
The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains by Glenda Riley: This book introduces the important concept of a female frontier—a frontier “every bit as real and coherent, as, for example, the mining frontier.” It gives us a new understanding of western women’s shared experiences and of the full implications of their participation in America’s westward movement.
Plain Pictures: Images of the American Plains by Joni L. Kinsey: Plain Pictures is the first book to address representations of the Midwestern prairie as a genre distinct from American western art. Kinsey argues that images of the grassland, far from being plain, offer a paradox of their own: the significance of the subject is equaled only by the struggle to express it.
Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait by Matt White: Matt White combines history, science, and travelogue to create a fascinating look at the Blackland Prairies.
Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains by Rachel Calof: Although Calof published her life story in 1936, the history deals mostly with her time on the prairie between 1894 and 1904 and the hardships she encountered. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is.
Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress: James Woodress goes beyond previous biographers in drawing on some fifteen hundred letters, interviews, speeches, and reminiscences. He separates much fact from fiction and takes into account the ever-growing body of Cather criticism. Thoroughly grounded in Cather’s writings, which were autobiographical to an uncommon degree, this book is likely to stand as the definitive biography of her for years to come.
Old Jules by Mari Sandoz: This portrait of her pioneer father grew out of “the silent hours of listening behind the stove or the wood box, when it was assumed, of course, that I was asleep in bed.” Sandoz recalls hearing stories “of the fights with the cattlemen and the sheepmen, of the tragic scarcity of women, when a man had to ‘marry anything that got off the train,’ of the droughts, the storms, the wind and isolation. But the most impressive stories were those told me by Old Jules himself.”
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin: The story chronicles the blizzard of January 13, 1888 on the Dakota-Nebraska prairie. The storm struck without warning after an unseasonably warm period during which children went to school without coats or gloves. By January 14, some 500 people lay dead on the drifted snow, many of them school children who had perished on their way home from country schools. This is a timely tale when considered with current concerns with preparedness.
The Sod House by Cass G. Barns: The Sod House is a personal narrative—the intimate story of the settlement and frontier years (1867-1897) of the Nebraska prairie country lying between the Elkhorn and Loup rivers.
Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen by Bob Greene: Bob Greene shows how a small town in Nebraska gave meaning, joy, and hope to every train of World War Two soldiers passing through their town. The town came to symbolize the patriotism of the American people during World War Two.
Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart: A captivating account of Stewart’s experiences running a ranch in Wyoming in 1909. This spirited look at American frontier life is full of the beauty, hardships and joy of living on the prairie.