By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1939

By the Shores of Silver Lake opens with somber emotions: a long illness has affected the family, and Mary has been left blind; Pa has not been able to catch up after the devastating destruction of the grasshoppers; Laura has had to take on more responsibilities, and they are behind in the housework; and to make matters worse, someone is coming, and Ma and Laura are embarrassed for their disheveled state.  

But this turns out to be good news.  The unannounced visitor is Aunt Docia, and she offers Pa a job as the accountant on the railroad grade in Dakota Territory.  Pa takes it, and heads out immediately, leaving Ma and the girls to recover for a few more months.  

Sadly, Jack dies of old age before they leave for Dakota.  
Laura knew she was not a little girl anymore.  Now she was alone and must take care of herself.
Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and new baby Grace, leave for Dakota on a train.  It is a new experience for them, and Laura is frightened.  She reminds the reader several times that people died on trains because trains traveled at high speeds and crashed frequently.  You can sense the fear and anxiety in all of them as they nervously cling to each other.  But once they were on the train, it was a wonderful experience.  Laura remembered Pa called these "the wonderful times they were living in."

Laura and Mary continued their competition with each other, and this was a humorous exchange: as they were sitting on a bench waiting for the train, Mary sensed Carrie fidgeting, and said,
Don't fidget, Carrie, you'll muss your dress.
Laura craned to look at Carrie, sitting beyond Mary.  Carrie was small and thin in pink calico, with her pink ribbons on her brown braids and her hat.  She flushed miserably because Mary found fault with her, and Laura was going to say, 'You come over by, Carrie, and fidget all you want to!'
Just then Mary's face lighted up with joy and she said, 'Ma, Laura's fidgeting, too!  I can tell she is, without seeing!' 
Being in the presence of men was uncomfortable then.  When Ma and the girls arrived at their destination, they heard the railroad workers singing Ma's favorite hymn; but when they saw Ma they immediately stopped singing.  Rarely any of the men looked up at them, and I believe it was out of respect.  They quickly changed their behaviors and conversations, for good reason.

Because of Mary's blindness, Pa told Laura that she must see for Mary.  And this is probably why we enjoy beautiful writings by Laura.  When Mary (being the realist) argued with Laura that she must be sensible in her descriptions, Laura discovered "there were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them."

For example, after Pa met Ma and the girls at the depot, he took them via wagon to their temporary home at the railroad grade.  Laura described the prairie for Mary.  But for the reader she said,
The sun sank.  A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in the clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.
That would have been silly to Mary.  Stars don't swing.

Surprise visit by Rev. Alden

The story moves quickly.  When winter comes, the Ingalls family moves into the surveyor's home, which is perfect.  It has everything they need.  They shared Christmas with their only neighbors, Mr. Boast and his new wife.  And Rev. Alden makes a surprise visit with a new young pastor, preparing to start a church in the new territory.  Before they leave, Rev. Alden suggests they pray together:
They all knelt down by their chairs, and Reverend Alden asked God, Who knew their hearts and their secret thoughts, to look down on them there, and to forgive their sins and help them to do right.  A quietness was in the room while he spoke.  Laura felt she were a hot, dry, dusty grass parching in a drought, and the quietness was a cool and gentle rain falling on her.  It truly was a refreshment.
 Feeding the boarders

Pa still needs to stake out a homestead and claim it, which is a complicated process.  Meanwhile, men who already have their homesteads in the Dakota Territory need a place to stay overnight and food to eat. The surveyor's home is the only civilization for miles, and Ma cannot turn them away.  So she charges them for food and boarding.  This would have driven me insane; serving all of those men was backbreaking.

And Pa's experience getting the homestead was treacherous and difficult, too, though everything worked out, obviously.  When spring came, a little town of De Smet was being born, and Pa put up a storefront on one of the main roads, which became the new temporary home for the Ingalls family.  I like Pa's philosophy:
'That's what it takes to build up a country,' said Pa.  'Building over your head and under your feet, but building.  We'd never get anything fixed to suit us if we waited for things to suit us before we started.'

Pa trying to get a homestead

Before we know it, Pa builds a small shanty on their homestead, too, and the Ingalls family squeezes in.  Shortly after, they planted trees, as required by the government.  Pa imagined the government was trying to change the climate.  (Interestingly, even then the government was telling people what to do with their property.)

One of Laura's responsibilities was to take Ellen, their cow, to drink at the well.  The prairie was a great distraction for Laura.
Big girl as she was, Laura spread her arms wide to the wind and ran against it.  She flung herself on the flowery grass and rolled like a colt.  She lay in the soft sweet grasses and looked at the great blueness above her and the high, pearly clouds sailing in it.  She was so happy that tears came into her eyes.  
Peacefully, By the Shores of Silver Lake closes sweeter than it opened, of which I am so grateful. However, next month we move to The Long Winter, a story that promises many essential lessons for life.  


  1. I love how we each note different things from the same books! I totally overlooked Reverend Alden's return into their lives, even if only briefly! And I did love Pa's philosophy about building--just DO IT! :) I can only imagine what happens next! Thanks for your review and linking it!