Starlight Nights

by Leslie Peltier
1999 - first published in 1965
trade paperback - 240 pages
from Sky Publishing

This is traditionally the time to relax and spend a few precious hours reading at the beach or gazing up at the summer stars, preeminent among them, brilliant, blue-white Vega. The sight of Vega rising in the northeast on a late spring or early summer evening, when the scent of blossoms is on the breeze, makes me nostalgic for a time and place I've never lived, rural Ohio nearly a century ago. The reason is Starlight Nights, the thoroughly charming memoir of Leslie Peltier, perhaps the greatest amateur astronomer of the last century.

Born at the beginning of the 20th Century near Delphos, Ohio, where he lived all his life, Peltier fell in love with the stars and picked strawberries all one summer to earn enough money to buy a small telescope. He had seen the two great comets of 1910 (one the famous Halley's Comet) as a small lad and went on to discover 12 comets as an adult. Intrigued by stars that change in brightness over the course of hours, days, or years, Peltier eventually cataloged more than 132,000 variable star observations and became, in the words of astronomer Harlow Shapley, "the world's greatest non-professional astronomer."

Starlight Nights is not about asteroid impacts, or black holes, or string-theory cosmology. Rather, it is about the simple love of the stars and nature and local history. One of the more memorable chapters simply describes an overnight camping trip to a small historical marker at Copus Hill, Ohio. As a reader wrote to David Levy, editor of the current edition, "I never fully understood or appreciated your passion for the night sky until I read this book." Peltier's description of 1920's Ohio has much the feel of E.B. White's essays on country life and is illustrated by the author's own pencil drawings of farm life and backyard observatories. If you're tired of mutants and matrices, terrorism and bad economic news, car crashes and SARS, spend some restful time with Starlight Nights. It's a book you'll tell your best friends about and that you'll remember every time you see Vega shining brightly.