The best pioneer books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about pioneers and why they recommend each book.

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Ranald MacDonald

By William S. Lewis (editor), Naojiro Murakami (editor),

Book cover of Ranald MacDonald

At the start of the 1990s, I discovered a dusty, original edition of this book at my local library. Published in 1923 and reprinted in 1990, it tells the story of Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894)—a half Chinook and half Scot from today’s Astoria, Oregon—who may be the first North American to go to Japan alone, of his own volition. Heavily edited and annotated from his original manuscript, it is a complex story, partly because many of his words were posthumously re-written by a friend. This created a twelve-year obsession for me—to research and untangle the true story as it relates to Japan. MacDonald became my hero. In 1993, I dedicated one book (America and the Four Japans: Friend, Foe, Model, Mirror) to him. In 2003, I finally finished my own book about him: Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of…

Who am I?

Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning author of non-fiction books on the convergence of Japanese and American cultures, and he has written on subjects including manga, technology, acrobats, history, and religion. He is also a well-known translator of Japanese manga and literature, and a veteran interpreter. In 2009 the Emperor of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for helping to introduce and promote Japanese contemporary popular culture. In 2017 he also received the prestigious Japan Foundation Award.

I wrote...

My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

By Frederik L. Schodt,

Book cover of My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters

What is my book about?

The Heart Sutra has been beloved by millions in East Asia for over 1,400 years. It is used as solace, protection, and a gateway to another mode of thinking. My Heart Sutra: A world in 260 characters is about both the sutra and my lifelong fascination with it. It covers its mesmerizing mantra, its ancient history, the “emptiness” theory, and the way it is used around the world as a metaphysical tool to overcome chaos and confusion and reach a new understanding of reality—a perfection of wisdom.

For a modern context, I write about journeys to caves in China, seeing American beats reciting poetry, current academic theories about the sutra’s mysterious origins, and a visit to a Kyoto temple where a robot Avalokiteśvara explains the sutra’s meaning.

Three Roads to the Alamo

By William C. Davis,

Book cover of Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis

Have you ever wondered what happens during a significant moment in history and no one is left to tell the tale? Three Roads to the Alamo by William C. Davis helps give a wonderful backstory to the characters leading up to the famous 1836 Texas battle against the Mexican army under Santa Ana. The pages are filled with details obtained through original documents of the era both in the United States and Mexico, making the characters come alive as never before. The incorrigible James Bowie, loyal commander William Barret Travis, and the renowned Davy Crockett give the ultimate sacrifice against insurmountable odds, and in doing so, shape the course of history forever.

Who am I?

I have always loved reading and feel a natural attraction to history and the lessons it can give us. I want to learn something new whenever I pick up a book but also enjoy the story and characters as well. Since 2010, I have authored six historical novels of my own and am working on my seventh. I carefully weave years of extensive research into a fast-paced, exciting story that pushes all the right buttons! Intrigue, love, fear, and hope are integral parts of my novels, and I hope along the way, my readers will gain a new insight into a different culture or era they never knew before.  

I wrote...

Gifts of the Gods: Iron and Bronze

By Thomas J. Berry,

Book cover of Gifts of the Gods: Iron and Bronze

What is my book about?

Five men and women in Ancient Greece are set on a dangerous journey of self-discovery during the bitter conflict of the Peloponnesian War.

The Olympic festivals honor the gods with their renowned athletic contests and one woman finds herself in a deadly gamble when she must make an agonizing choice. A young helot slave longs for freedom while a new wife imperils herself to stand by her husband and home. When a wealthy aristocrat finds his world turned upside down, he must learn what true sacrifice is all about. A Spartan officer who has lived by a strict code of tradition must discover new ways to cope in an unconventional war.  Who will survive and what will their lives be like when it's over?

All Together in One Place, a Novel of Kinship, Courage, and Faith

By Jane Kirkpatrick,

Book cover of All Together in One Place, a Novel of Kinship, Courage, and Faith

All Together in One Place had me hooked just by reading the back cover. As I read about Mazy, her somewhat difficult marriage and the tragedy of loss, I found courage and hope. 

All Together in One Place traces the real-life story of a group of people traveling by wagon on the Oregon Trail in 1852. All the men in the caravan die and these women must decide to work with their differences and learn it is necessary to rely on each other in order to survive.

Reading Kirkpatrick’s book taught me about genuine faith and why asking for help is vital. The authentic dialogue and struggles the women have within the pages of history and this book gave me a perspective on life I did not have.

Who am I?

I am a Bible college graduate whose faith has always been a practical matter. Because I learned to find the “so what” of the Bible, when I became a teacher of the Bible in the public schools of Rowan County, North Carolina, my elective courses had waiting lists for students to get in to. As I now teach in Maine, I found I could continue to share a practical Christian faith through my writing. The books I have listed here do the very thing that I seek in my own writing.

I wrote...

The Bottle House

By Susan Grant,

Book cover of The Bottle House

What is my book about?

Stefan Krause, a personal injury lawyer, spirals downward in the wake of losing both his wife to cancer and a critical court case. Stacy Meadows, a behavioral healthcare nurse, discovers her husband in an affair with her best friend Aubree. The board members at the Christian school where Debbie Young teaches confront her about her negative attitude. They stipulate they will only offer her a continuing teacher contract if she agrees to Christian counseling and treatment.

Driven to Bethany R & L Behavioral Healthcare Center, these three wounded individuals seek healing. Can Chaplain Joseph Miller and his mysterious collection of bottles aid in their recovery and help them find what they need from the Great Physician?

The Plains Across

By John D. Unruh,

Book cover of The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60

Posthumously published in 1970 by the University of Illinois Press, this is a must-have for anyone interested in the early years of the western migration. Unruh — who died young shortly after completing the manuscript performs the essential task of assembling credible data about emigrants and Native Americans, and — most importantly — about their encounters with each other. Popular myths and Hollywood movies notwithstanding, Unruh makes clear that Native Americans seldom caused emigrants much harm. Indeed, emigrants of the 1840s were more likely to shoot themselves and each other by accident than require a gun for self-defense.

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.     

Prairie Fires

By Caroline Fraser,

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder maintains an avid fanbase in spite of reappraisals of her racial attitudes; and re-encountering her as an adult can be an exciting, disappointing, jarring, but fascinating experience. Caroline Fraser sorts through the semi-autobiographical sources, not least of which are their fictional writings, of Wilder and her collaborator daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, all of which they infused with their own nostalgia and libertarianism. The tortured landscape becomes almost another living figure, as well, since natural disasters set the scene for the novels and their writing. The books’ creation, their influences, and, in turn, their influence in the mythmaking of the American West, contemporary racism, and man-made climate change included, make Wilder more than just a little girl growing up in little houses. Readers might also find themselves wishing to revisit other figures from their youth.

Who am I?

Little House on the Prairie, Roots, the Bicentennial, family vacations, and an early childhood in New Orleans all shaped my perception of the world as a place overlaying history. Although I could not have completely articulated this then, I specifically wanted to know what women before me had done, I wanted to know about parts of the story that seemed to be in the shadows of the places where I consumed history, and I wanted to know “the real story.” The intensity of recreating a person’s world and their experience in it made me question how historians know what we know, and how deeply myth, nostalgia, or even preconceptions guide readings of the evidence. The authors here all show an awareness that re-telling a person’s life can move it away from the evidence and they try to return to that evidence and find the “real story,” or as near to it as possible.

I wrote...

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

What is my book about?

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing--who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed "woman's rights man."


By Karen R. Jones,

Book cover of Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane

If you’re a fan of Deadwood or, going further back, the 1953 Doris Day movie, Calamity Jane, you will be fascinated by Jones’s book about the buckskin-wearing Martha Jane Canary, a.k.a. Calamity Jane. Details about her life are either sparse or exaggerated, so Jones tells us what the frontier legend has symbolized, both in her own time and in ours. Dressing like a man made her stand out and made her the object of both derision and decades of bad biographies. She still serves as a symbol of the way that women could defy expectations in the West, and Jones’s book gives us a Calamity Jane we can root for.

Who am I?

I have loved the history of the West since I was a child, as my family has lived here for over a century. I devoured historical fiction about pioneer girls in grammar school (including the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and as I got into college, I expanded my reading universe to include books about women’s roles in the West, and the meaning of this region in overall American history. This concept is what drew me to study the cultural influence of dude ranching, where women have always been able to shine -- and where I placed the protagonist of my first novel.

I wrote...

Dudes Rush In

By Lynn Downey,

Book cover of Dudes Rush In

What is my book about?

In 1952, restless war widow Phoebe McFarland decides to leave her home in San Francisco to spend six months on her sister-in-law’s dude ranch in Tribulation, Arizona, called the H Double Bar. But Tribulation soon lives up to its name when secrets from the town’s past collide with a shocking revelation of her own, leading Phoebe down a trail to both discovery and danger.

Dudes Rush In is my first novel, written after over 35 years of publishing non-fiction works about California and the West. It combines my love of western history, the unique culture of dude ranching, and my desire to amplify the lives of women of the West.

Monte Walsh

By Jack Schaefer,

Book cover of Monte Walsh

Jack Schaefer is mostly remembered for one of his other (very fine) novels: Shane, the basis for the iconic film. But it’s the lesser-known Monte Walsh that really captures what life was like in the waning days of the “Wild West,” especially for cowboys. The episodic novel follows the titular wrangler over the entirety of his life as he wanders the West looking for work and getting into and out of trouble. Like Lonesome Dove, it gives readers a look at cowboy life so up-close-and-personal you can practically smell the smoke from the campfire.

Who am I?

Although I grew up with a fondness for Western movies thanks to my John Wayne-loving dad, I never seriously explored the genre until I began writing my Holmes on the Range mystery series. What I discovered when I began regularly reading books about the West took me a bit by surprise: I loved them! Since then I’ve read dozens of history books, novels, and short story collections that bring the Old West to life.

I wrote...

Holmes on the Range: A Mystery

By Steve Hockensmith,

Book cover of Holmes on the Range: A Mystery

What is my book about?

The Wild West gets even wilder when cowboy brothers Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer and Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer set out to catch a killer using the methods of the late, great Sherlock Holmes. The only thing standing between them and the truth: stampedes, rustlers, Holmes-hating English aristocrats, and a cannibal named “Hungry Bob.” Entertainment Weekly calls this Edgar Award-finalist mystery/Western hybrid “hilarious” and “delightfully offbeat.”

In the Rogue Blood

By James Carlos Blake,

Book cover of In the Rogue Blood

Mixing Faulkner’s gothic language with McCarthy’s sense of history, Blake writes a story of two brothers torn apart by circumstance and their experiences in the Mexican-American War.  Blake captures that sense of aimless wandering that echoes Faulkner’s stories—the rootless characters meandering across the country, not only unsure of their destinations but maybe even indifferent to them. To me, one of the most profound twists in the book is that the brothers don’t seem to care which side of the war they participate in. They are itinerants whose purpose in the world is simply circumstantial; they are instruments of universal forces that they neither question nor understand. 

Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve been deeply influenced by Southern literature—especially the work of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Even though I’m not from the South myself, I am drawn to Southern writers’ immodesty. I believe much of contemporary literature is too timid. It is about the mundane, the everyday.  It does not elevate; instead, it diminishes.  Much of the literature of the South is biblical in its sensibilities.  It is unafraid to deal with the big universal issues with language that is equally big and universal.  It does not pander to modesty or postmodern selfconsciousness. It is audacious. It’s the kind of writing that made me want to write.

I wrote...

The Reapers Are the Angels

By Alden Bell,

Book cover of The Reapers Are the Angels

What is my book about?

For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can't remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her on a personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks.

Bad Land

By Jonathan Raban,

Book cover of Bad Land: An American Romance

Evocative and clear-eyed introduction to the western landscape; this compelling read orients readers firmly in place and time. It’s carefully researched nonfiction that reads like a suspense thriller; you’ll spend many nights reading it past your bedtime.

Who am I?

I am a history-phobe turned history fanatic thanks to a snippet of a family story about my great-grandmother. Casual interest morphed into a focused passion when I learned that she truly had homesteaded-- all by herself and in her late teens-- in eastern Montana in 1917. Her accomplishment inspired four years of research and writing, resulting in my first historical novel, Hattie Big Sky, which earned a Newbery Honor award and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. More importantly, that bit of family lore revealed my purpose as a writer and I have since devoted my career to bringing the past alive for today’s young readers.

I wrote...

Hattie Big Sky

By Kirby Larson,

Book cover of Hattie Big Sky

What is my book about?

For most of her life, sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has been shuttled from one distant relative to another. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she summons the courage to leave Iowa and move all by herself to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim. Under the big sky, Hattie braves hard weather, hard times, a cantankerous cow, and her own hopeless hand at the cookstove. 

This young pioneer's story is lovingly stitched together from Kirby Larson’s own family history and the sights, sounds, and scents of homesteading life.

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