I have a fascination – perhaps even an obsessive – interest in photographs of pioneers living on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. The pictures of people facing the challenges of living in sod houses in sparsely populated settlements are compelling. I can’t stop looking into the subject’s faces and wondering how they’re surviving. When we lost the electricity in our house a few weeks ago, we checked into a hotel. Clearly, we would not have been successful on the prairie – especially in the winter.
This is a picture I keep on my desk:
I am fascinated by this anonymous woman. What was she thinking standing there with her dog and her chickens? Was she wondering how she got there? Had she heard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which opened in 1874? Perhaps…she’s perfectly happy where she is. This is why I love Willa Cather’s novels so much. Her beautiful books are the closest I can get to understanding this woman.
I don’t think I’ve ever ordered a book so quickly as I did Nancy Plain’s new biography for young readers: Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days. I think I may literally have been reading something about it and walking to my computer to order it at the same time. This book was like discovering a gold mine: sixty-two photographs of Nebraska homesteaders and the story of a man who recorded their lives.
Solomon Butcher went west with his father and brother, and although he didn’t make it as a farmer, he was obsessed with photography. He took over 3,000 photographs of his fellow homesteaders. According to Plain’s excellent biography, Butcher called this his “history scheme.” “He planned to travel through Custer County,” Plain writes, “taking pictures of his friends and neighbors, the pioneers. He would collect their reminiscences, too, and combine photographs and writings in one book.”
This is not a book for every young person. But…for a 12 or 13-year-old who enjoys history or a budding photographer, Light on the Prairie is an excellent choice. This is a book that will inspire empathy and wonder.