The best books about the Great Plains

7 authors have picked their favorite books about the Great Plains and why they recommend each book.

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The Great Plains

By Walter Prescott Webb,

Book cover of The Great Plains

Originally published in 1932, this remains one of the most accessible and thought-provoking books ever written about the American West. Webb’s work rises to the level of literature, especially when describing early encounters by white Americans with the landscape and native people they met west of the 98th meridian. Few writers have captured so vividly the expansion of America from the humid and forested east to the arid west of the Great Plains. Some of Webb’s conclusions may feel a little dated, but this remains a very compelling and rewarding book.


Who am I?

Jim Rasenberger is a writer and author of four books - Revolver, The Brilliant Disaster; America, 1908, and High SteelHe has contributed to the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, and other publications. A native of Washington, DC, he lives in New York City.


I wrote...

Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

By Jim Rasenberger,

Book cover of Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America

What is my book about?

Revolver is the biography of Sam Colt, inventor of the legendary Colt revolver (a.k.a. six-shooter). Patented in 1836, the Colt was the first practical firearm that could shoot more than one bullet without reloading. Colt’s gun had a profound impact on American history, including industrial, economic, and demographic changes. Most immediately, starting in the 1840s, the revolver spurred white expansion into the American west, where emigrants came to depend on it and Native Americans came to dread it. Revolver is the story of a man and his gun, but it is also a portrait of America at a time of tremendous transformation.

The Oregon Trail

By Francis Parkman,

Book cover of The Oregon Trail

I began to read this book in childhood because it was in our house (sent as a present from an Aunt living in America) and it intrigued me by the title and the illustrations of buffalos, coyotes, bears, the landscape, rivers, canyons, and the covered wagons in a circle with people and their belongings, bedding down by campfires under the starry skies […] The episodes easily captured my attention. Parkman is documenting the first settlers crossing the Mid-West Plains towards the Rockies. This is really ‘a page turner’ and classic of travelogue adventure, even though I had never heard the genre term ‘travelogue’ on first reading. It also reads like a fantasy and provides the reader who has never been to the United States with a longing to go there. Books are parallel to life and in this case for me, I did reach the Origen Trail, walked some of…


Who am I?

This is very simple as to why there is passionate engagement with the themes listed within each of the five titles chosen. It's about engagement with the story which immediately comes from strongly identifying with the characters and events. The ‘identity factor’ is vital in drawing the reader in, and it's the mystery when writing a story or book which doesn’t begin with a prescribed plan. The mystery is really what creates the story and its characters, wanting to see what happens on the next page. With the reader, after having read a few pages, feeling the compulsion to read on, fully committed, emotionally involved, intrigued, and passionately caught up in the story.


I wrote...

A Horse Called El Dorado

By Kevin Kiely,

Book cover of A Horse Called El Dorado

What is my book about?

Pepe Carroll, the hero of A Horse Called El Dorado, has to leave his father during a military conflict and escape through the jungles of Colombia with his mother which is the first part of his story of survival. His adventures are continual survival. How he finds his grandparents in a far away country and good friends of his own age who identify his dream which will take him into “the world of horses.” How he survives. How he discovers what he must achieve and achieves it is his story. Told in a way that makes it real in every way. There is hardship, trouble, breakthrough and joy at least for Pepe, despite what he is witness to on his journeys.     

Little House on the Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams (illustrator),

Book cover of Little House on the Prairie

What an amazing time to grow up in America as a pioneer settling into life on the prairie. This is the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s resilient and loving family as they built their own home, hunted for their own food, and farmed the land. I read this book and others from the series to my daughters who were mesmerized by the life Laura led and the courage she displayed. The story depicts the challenges and the joys her family found in forging their own path and living life the way they wanted. The fact that the author captured all the ups, downs, and lessons learned and became a writer during that time period is another remarkable pioneering effort.


Who am I?

Books have the power to change your life, that is, if you can find a story that inspires you. As a multiple-time CEO and board director I noticed the lack of fiction books with smart, strong, and positive female leaders- that’s why I started writing the Ceiling Smasher series. My first novel, The Closer, is about the first female CEO of a sports company and the secret society of professional women, called the Ceiling Smashers, who help her succeed. The books on this list are based on true stories about extraordinary women who demonstrated courage, brainpower, and grit to achieve great things and blaze new trails- who wouldn’t be inspired by that?


I wrote...

The Closer

By Shaz Kahng,

Book cover of The Closer

What is my book about?

The Closer is a riveting tale about a strong woman endeavoring to succeed with smarts, scruples, and style.

There’s a secret society of professional women, called the Ceiling Smashers, who help each other succeed. And the founder of the Ceiling Smashers, Vivien Lee, is about to go after her dream of running a business. A lifelong athlete, Vivien arrives at the Smart Sports campus in Portland, Oregon and is introduced as the first female president. It’s one of the highest-profile jobs in an industry inhospitable to women. A tight-knit group of male sports executives is determined to show that an industry outsider cannot prevail. The challenge is all too clear: will Vivien triumph against impossible odds?

Crazy Horse and Custer

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Book cover of Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors

This dual-biography has the best description of Custer’s death ever written. Of course, no one knows exactly what happened, and that sense of mystery is one of the reasons it has become part of American lore. But master historian Stephen Ambrose uses the available evidence to speculate in a few beautifully written paragraphs what brought Custer to his legendary defeat and how he might have reacted to it in his last moments. The comparative stories of Custer and Crazy Horse leading to the battle is a fast-paced tale that will make you keep turning pages, forgetting you know how it will end. But the book is more than fine writing. The dual-biography format is the perfect vehicle for Ambrose to explain the clash of cultures that led to tragic conflict.


Who am I?

As a journalist, the Little Bighorn fascinates me because it has all the elements of a great story: larger-than-life characters, conflict, fighting against the odds, and mystery. I turned that fascination into research when I left newspapering to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Texas. I wrote a number of articles about press coverage of Custer and the Last Stand, and this research eventually led to two books, most recently a biography of Custer focusing on his artistic personality, especially his writing career. I’ve continued to explore the history of war reporting, always looking for topics that make good stories.


I wrote...

Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

By James Mueller,

Book cover of Ambitious Honor: George Armstrong Custer's Life of Service and Lust for Fame

What is my book about?

George Armstrong Custer, one of the most familiar figures of nineteenth-century American history, is known almost exclusively as a soldier, his brilliant military career culminating in catastrophe at Little Bighorn. But Custer, author James E. Mueller suggests, had the soul of an artist, not of a soldier. Ambitious Honor elaborates this radically new perspective, arguing that an artistic passion for creativity and recognition drove Custer to success—and, ultimately, to the failure that has overshadowed his notable achievements.

What Ambitious Honor provides is the context for understanding how Custer's theatrical personality took shape and thrived, beginning with his training at a teaching college before he entered West Point. Teaching, Mueller notes, requires creativity and performance, both of which fascinated and served Custer throughout his life.

Great Plains

By Ian Frazier,

Book cover of Great Plains

If you combined a personal essay with a compelling travelogue and wove in thoroughly researched history, you’d get Ian Frazier’s book The Great Plains. Frazier’s excellent writing immediately pulled me into his rambles across one of the least visited, and least understood, portions of our country. I learned so much about the Great Plains without even trying by simply reading this great book. If you’re already a fan, or if you’ve never really considered the Great Plains, this book will enlighten and inspire you to learn more and maybe even visit this sprawling, and important, American landscape. 


Who am I?

I love being outdoors and I’ve been fortunate to spend much of life under the open sky, both professionally and personally. Learning about the landscapes I’ve visited on my outdoor adventures or helped protect through my professional conservation and writing work is both fulfilling and inspiring. Skilled writers deepen my understanding of the diverse, intricate, and complicated natural world. Whether I’m reading to better understand the policies and histories that have shaped our public lands or about the adventurers who inspire me to get out there, I always find immense value and enjoyment when reading about the landscapes we share. 


I wrote...

Our National Forests: Stories from America's Most Important Public Lands

By Greg M. Peters,

Book cover of Our National Forests: Stories from America's Most Important Public Lands

What is my book about?

From the glaciated peaks of Alaska to the deserts of Arizona, America’s 193 million acres of National Forests are true treasures. Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands takes readers on a series of journeys through these often overlooked and misunderstood lands. Packed with gorgeous photography and engaging prose, Our National Forests highlights the people, histories, and policies that make these lands so special. 

The Worst Hard Time

By Timothy Egan,

Book cover of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

I love Timothy Egan’s book for its clear-eyed and deeply compassionate look into the Dirty Thirties. Egan tells the stories of the people who survived the Dust Bowl: mothers sweeping the house with a shovel; fathers trying to rescue their livestock from the smothering soil drifts; children with dust pneumonia. This is a book about the way human greed and recklessness destroyed an abundant nature—a lesson for the climate changes we are facing. Favorite quote: “For all the horror, the land was not without its magic... the sky was open and embracing, the breeze only a soft whisper... Robin's egg blue was the color of mornings without fear. At night, you could see the stars behind the stars. Infinity was never an abstraction on the High Plains.”


Who am I?

I’m a writer and history buff who loves to make fiction out of facts. For me, the best stories are imagined out of truths we have all lived, real places that are mapped in our memories, real people whose names conjure events, past times that are prelude to our own. I like to read books built on plots and puzzles, so I write mysteries. I love books about real people, so I write biographical novels bent around the secret selves of people we only thought we knew: Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe. 


I wrote...

The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

By Susan Wittig Albert,

Book cover of The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

What is my book about?

It’s Labor Day weekend, 1935, and the Darling Dahlias―the garden club in little Darling, Alabama―are trying to keep their cool at the end of a sizzling summer. This isn’t easy, though, since there’s a firebug on the loose in Darling. A dangerous hurricane is poised offshore and a hurricane of a different sort is making a whirlwind campaign stop: the much-loved-much-hated senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long, whom President Roosevelt calls the “most dangerous man in America.”

The people of Darling face the challenges of the Great Depression with courage and grace, reminding us that friends offer the best of themselves to each other, community is what holds us together, and even when life seems too hot to handle, there’s always hope.

Never Caught Twice

By Matthew S. Luckett,

Book cover of Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850-1890

Horse stealing was more than theft of valuable and essential property. Matthew Luckett explains that on the Great Plains horse stealing “destabilized communities, institutions, nations, diplomatic relations, and cross-cultural exchange.” Luckett challenges many popular notions about horse thieves (for starters, they were not hung).  There were different kinds of horse theft and horse thieves. Don’t be misled by “Nebraska” in the title—this book shows that horse stealing had regional and national repercussions.   Luckett is an engaging writer, and this book is extremely readable and filled with compelling stories. I particularly recommend the chapter “The Horse Wars” about the role of horses in the war the U.S. Army waged against the Indians. 


Who am I?

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I was crazy about both horses and books, so it’s not surprising that in grad school I became a horse historian. I found that writing about work horses linked my love of horses with my interests in technology and nature. The books I’ve chosen show how humans and horses shaped each other, society, the environment, and built the modern world. I hope readers browse (graze?) these books at their leisure and pleasure.


I wrote...

Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America

By Ann Greene,

Book cover of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America

What is my book about?

My book explores the rise of horse power between 1800 and 1920. A bird’s-eye view of nineteenth-century American society would show millions of horses supplying the energy for transportation, delivery, construction, maintenance, manufacturing, and agriculture, especially in the Northeast, Middle Atlantic, and Upper Midwest. Mechanization and steam power made it possible to use horses in unprecedented numbers. The Civil War also used thousands of equines to haul wagons and artillery. Animal power drove national development and expansion. The use of horse power declined when Americans began to make different social, cultural, and environmental choices about consuming energy.

Primitive Wilderness Living & Survival Skills

By John McPherson, Geri McPherson,

Book cover of Primitive Wilderness Living & Survival Skills: Naked into the Wilderness

The McPhersons cover a lot of ground: tool making, hide tanning, fire making, cooking, traps, containers, shelters, all of it geared mostly toward the Great Plains since they live in Kansas. I found the accompanying photographs to be a big plus, making the skills easier to replicate for the reader. The voice of the authors is personable and believable.


Who am I?

As a child I was drawn to the forest by its aesthetics. I felt as if I were wandering through a masterpiece painting. As I grew older, I wanted to know more about the many working parts of nature. I quickly learned this: If I wanted to know nature intimately, I needed to know what the Native Americans knew. After years of study and honing skills, I undertook seasonal, self-imposed “survival trips” in remote areas of the National Forest. As an adult I served as a naturalist for the Georgia Conservancy, wilderness director for High Meadows Camp, and as director of my own wilderness school – Medicine Bow – in the Appalachian Mountains.



I wrote...

Wild Plants and Survival Lore: Secrets of the Forest

By Mark Warren,

Book cover of Wild Plants and Survival Lore: Secrets of the Forest

What is my book about?

This comprehensive study of North American plants leads the reader through proper identification of 100 common botanical species and how to use them as foods, medicines, craft materials, soaps, and insect repellents borrowing primarily from Native American traditions and backing up those ancient uses by modern research. Also covered are weather-proof shelter building, primitive cooking techniques, hunting with a throwing stick, water purification without metal cookware, and more.

Not only does this book appeal to the newcomer to survival skills by immersing him/her into the fine details of woods lore, it is also written for the teacher, parent, scout leader, park ranger, and nature center educator by presenting a lesson plan for over 200 projects or activities designed to edify and inspire young ones to return to nature.

Nebraska

By Ron Hansen,

Book cover of Nebraska: Stories

This is a portrait of Nebraska (and Nebraskans) where most of my own book takes place. It’s also the state where I went to high school. I like Hansen’s spare and precise writing style because it perfectly fits the time and place, as well as the characters themselves who are presented stripped of the conceits and pretensions. For me, it’s a style, though different from McCarthy’s, that creates the illusion of actual direct experience as opposed to something I happen to be reading about. His story “Wickedness” creates a powerful image of winter on the Great Plains and its effect on people.


Who am I?

My family moved frequently and, as a result, I was raised in a number of different small towns in Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Massachusetts. I now live in a large city but the experience has never left me. There was always a certain amount of crime and corruption in the towns I grew up in, but I only had a child’s eye view of it. However, a child’s eye view is usually the most vivid. This experience and the books that I have listed above all had a direct influence on Blue Hotel.


I wrote...

Blue Hotel

By J.T. Conroe,

Book cover of Blue Hotel

What is my book about?

It’s the bitter winter of 1947. The young driver for a Chicago gangster flees his boss’s retribution carrying a valise full of stolen mob money. Suffering from an infected bullet wound received during his escape, he leaves his California-bound train and takes refuge in a dying Nebraska railroad town where he encounters a corrupt sheriff and a crippled war veteran who has been traumatized both by his combat experience and a tragic event back home that took place while he was fighting in Europe. This is a novel imagined as a sequel to Stephen Crane’s 1899 short story called “The Blue Hotel”.

White Death

By Christine Morgan,

Book cover of White Death

Yes, this book is based on the Great Blizzard of 1888, but trust me when I say this isn’t a historical document. Morgan introduces a wicked new twist with supernatural creatures known as the Wanageeska. This book had me gripped from the very first chapter, and in true Morgan fashion, drew me in deep until I was in over my head. This book is gruesome, intense, and fast-paced, serving as a testament to the dangers of mother nature. Morgan easily blends the fantastic with the historical into one incredible tale that I continue to think about years after reading it.


Who am I?

I love reading about monsters as much as I love writing about them. Unfortunately, it also means I’m super picky about the dark fantasy I read. These authors don’t disappoint. Dark fantasy is a genre that I continue to return to, whether it’s aimed at teens or adults. I’ve had to deal with many monsters in my life and I understand that they can take many shapes and forms. These books are some of the very best I’ve read and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have. 


I wrote...

The Seeking

By Marlena Frank,

Book cover of The Seeking

What is my book about?

Each Seeking, the magic that protects the town of Carra must be renewed, which means the children of the Exalted Family must go into hiding. Whether through disguise or bribe, through trusted friends or perfect hiding places, every child of the Priest family must avoid capture for the full day of The Seeking.

When things go wrong with the renewal, it’s up to seventeen-year-old Dahlia, the middle child of the Priest family, and her girlfriend, Bisa, to escape Carra and find the magical beings responsible for the protection. They must learn who would require such a cruel game every year and if the protection of the Gray People is really worth such a price. What they will discover is far worse.

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