Bess Streeter Aldrich's A Lantern in Her Hand was based on her mother's own story of pioneering in the American Midwest. The story follows the life of the protagonist Abbie Mackenzie-Deal who travels by covered wagon with her family as a girl, like Aldrich's own mother, to settle in the territory of Nebraska, not yet a state. There in Nebraska, Abbie grows up to be a beautiful woman with skin "creamy white as the May-flowers," long tapered fingers, and auburn hair, marries Will, and starts the difficult tasks of raising children and making a solid frontier home (p. 39). The story takes us through all of her adversities, including the Civil War, problems with Indians, plagues, droughts, prairie fires, blizzards, deaths of children, the death of her husband in later years, the start of World War I, and even the births of automobiles, wireless radios, and potato salad.
The beautiful title appears frequently as a recurring motif, such as at the end of the first chapter describing Abbie Mackenzie as living for eighty years with "a song upon her lips and a lantern in her hand," the lantern symbolizing her abilities to light the way, to take the lead, in the long and difficult life as a pioneer.