Sunday, August 9, 2015

Light on the Prairie

Spur Award for Best Juvenile Nonfiction
Nebraska Award for Youth Nonfiction
Will Rogers Medallion Award for Juvenile Nonfiction
Award of Merit American Association for State and Local History

"Light on the Prairie" is written by Nancy Plain, an award winning writer of biographies and histories for children and young adults. Since its publication in 2012 it has garnered numerous awards and accolades.  
Nancy finds American history a fascinating subject and is always curious about other people’s lives. She hopes her young readers will be inspired by her love of history and come to realize the enjoyment that comes from learning about people from the past and their contributions. In her own words...
"Who doesn't love a good story? And for me, history is an endless kaleidoscope of them.  I like to write history and biographies for young readers so that it's as exciting as fiction." 

"Light on the Prairie" introduces YA readers to Nebraska pioneer photographer Solomon Butcher. Virginia-born Butcher (1856–1927) rose with the tide of homesteaders that poured into Nebraska in the 1880s, lured by the promise of free land and self-sufficiency for those willing to put their hands to the plow. Butcher wasn’t willing, but he made a go of Nebraska life anyway, tilling homestead country for subjects for his camera and plowing the profits into his “history scheme,” a photographic and written record of pioneer life in Custer County. He’d make a book of his images and interviews, selling subscriptions to fund even more images.

Like any life story, there were hurdles along the way—drought, crop failures, economic near-ruin, a devastating house fire. But when all was said and done, Butcher had 3,000 images and the nugget for his book "Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska." While the book was a success, Butcher was not. Compelled to sell his entire collection of glass-plate negatives to the Nebraska State Historical Society for $1,000, he retreated into real estate and land speculation before moving to Colorado, where he later died.

The title "Light on the Prairie"  is a metaphor that expresses how Butcher shone a "light" on the prairie in terms of our understanding of the pioneer life. And it also correlates with the idea photography needs light in order to work. 

Butcher took over 3,000 photographs in his life time. What a monumental task for the author to whittle the choices down to just 62 photographs that capture an era of Western History. Butcher took pictures of families, cowboys, cattle, sheep, Indians and houses made of sod (up to two stories!) on a treeless prairie. One of my favorite photographs is the one used on the cover with a goat grazing on the roof. 
Adding to the priceless collection of photographs Nancy has added a back story text that is interesting, rich in detail and imagery and informative. Research for "Light on the Prairie "was spread out over eight months and writing the book took over a year and a half. During that time Nancy spent a lot of time at the Nebraska State Historical Society. The head librarian, Linda Hein, guided Nancy through the Butcher achieves. 

A favorite part of Nancy's research was reading the memoirs of elderly Nebraskans as they looked back on their prairie childhoods. Despite all the hardships of prairie life she found many had fond memories and joys of pioneer childhood.  I noted Nancy's meticulous research by the impressive bibliography in the back of the book.
Certainly copies of this book should be available in every Nebraska school for young readers to learn a piece of their history, but also for all those readers  who want to understand our western homestead legacy and Great Plains history better.
Nancy and I met at the Tucson Book Festival in March. To learn more about the author and read a book review  of "This Strange Wilderness" check out this link.
The book garnered attention from Booklist Starred Review and was voted one of 10 best Children's Biographies 2015.
Both Simon Butcher's and John James Audubon's lives paralleled on many levels. They were similar in their single-minded passion to achieve their goal and would stop at nothing regardless of the emotional or financial costs to achieve it. Both showed grit and determination.
According to the author she felt there was one major difference between Audubon and Butcher. "Butcher didn't really think of himself as a great artist. Audubon, on the other hand, felt like a genius and I think that he actually was. But they both made art that was absolutely unique. "   
Both books deserve to be on your late summer reading list. 


  1. Thanks for the tip on Light on the Prairie. This is definitely a book I must read.

  2. Nancy Plain writes such gorgeous books for young readers! I have read This Strange Wilderness and would like to read her book Frederic Remington:Artost of the American West next. Thanks for sharing, Susan!