Tuesday, May 29, 2018

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1939

This is the fourth book of the Little House series, in which Laura and her family move west again, to South Dakota. Things did not fare well for the Ingalls family at Plum Creek, in Minnesota, so this story opens up a little melancholy.

But hope was on the western horizon because Pa had a new job, working for the railroad, near by what would soon be a brand new town. Everyone was moving west, and the Ingalls family was getting a head start.

Laura recognized that she was maturing quickly and more was expected of her. She considered:
. . . she was not a little girl anymore. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up. Laura was not very big, but she was almost thirteen years old, and no one was there to depend on. Pa and Jack had gone, and Ma needed help to take care of Mary and the little girls, and somehow to get them all safely to the west on a train. 
That train ride was a first for Laura and her sisters, and they were terrified; however, it was the start of good things to come.

Since Mary had lost her eyesight, after contracting scarlet fever in Minnesota, Pa asked Laura to "see out loud for Mary." Laura did this very well, which is how (I think) she developed her wonderful storytelling. But sometimes it was too much for the realist, Mary. When Pa picked them up from the hotel, after the train ride, Laura was describing the road that would lead to their destination. She said,
The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short. And that's the end of it.
It can't be (Mary objected). The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.
I know it does.
Well, then I don't think you ought to say things like that (Mary told her gently). We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.
I was saying what I meant (Laura protested). 
(But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them.)
Later, Mary did it again, spoiling Laura's beautiful and free description of a horse and its rider. She said:
Oh, Mary! The snow-white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and a bright red shirt! The brown prairie all around -- and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They'll go on in the sun around the world. 
 (Mary thought a moment. Then she said) Laura, you know he couldn't ride into the sun. He's just riding along on the ground like anybody.
(But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.) 
Laura loved the West, just as Pa did. They both felt the same about it. Laura narrated,
. . . there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer. 
All the little sounds of the blowing grasses and of the horses munching and whooshing in their feed-box at the back of the wagon, and even the sounds of eating and talking could not touch the enormous silence of this prairie.  
Living near the railroad grade was a rough place, especially for women and girls. Pa warned them not to go down to the railroad grade, but Laura had an insatiable curiosity to watch the men work on the railroad. Finally, Pa relented and promised to take her there to have a look; but not before Ma gave her a good, stern lecture about being a lady:
She said that she wanted her girls to know how to behave, to speak nicely in low voices and have gentle manners and always be ladies. They had always lived in wild, rough places, except for a little while on Plum Creek, and now they were in a rough railroad camp, and it would be some time before this country was civilized. Until then, Ma thought it best that they keep themselves to themselves. It would be all right for her to go quietly with Pa to see the work, but she must be well-behaved and lady-like, and remember that a lady never did anything that could attract attention. 
Personally, I think this is beautiful advice for a mother to give to her daughter, particularly that last point. We have lost the art of being discreet. But I digress.

During a heated family discussion about the challenges of being the paymaster in the railroad camp, Ma even said that "discretion [was] the better part of valor."

After the camp closed up and moved on for the winter, and Pa had still not filed on a claim, the Ingalls family considered returning east because they could not stay in the meager claim shanty on Silver Lake. But as Providence would have it, the surveyor would not need his well-built and well-stocked house for the winter, and he invited the Ingalls family to stay there until spring; so they did,  and it was a joyous time for them. They had all the food and supplies they needed for winter. They often shared their time and meals with Mr. and Mrs. Boast, their closest neighbors. In the evening there was singing and contentment.

One day, they had a visit from Rev. Alden, from Plum Creek, and young Rev. Stuart, on their way out west to plant a new church. They only stopped for shelter for the night, and were surprised to find the Ingalls family. During their stay, they had prayer, and Laura narrated:
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 as if she were 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. 
Soon after this, there was a mad rush for the West. Settlers were coming every day and night, stopping at the surveyor's house for shelter and meals. Pa realized he needed to go file a claim on his parcel of land in De Smet, before it was gone. He had to leave Ma and the girls to feed and board these strangers without him, although Mr. and Mrs. Boast did stay with them and helped do the chores.

Pa returned, after having filed on their homestead, and, in spring, quickly put up a storefront in town and moved his family into that building. He also had to find time to build a small shanty on the homestead before someone else moved in on it, even if it were illegally. But with all of this building going on around them, Ma said she felt sorry for Mrs. Beardsley who was keeping a hotel in town, while it was still being built around her. But Pa replied,
That's what it takes to build up a country. 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. 
Laura watched the birds of Silver Lake and she noticed that they did not stay around. She considered, "wild birds did not like the town full of people, and neither did [she]."

Finally, the Ingalls family moved to their shanty on the homestead. On moving day,
Ma and Mary were glad because this was the end of traveling; they were going to settle on the homestead and never move again. Carrie was glad because she was eager to see the homestead, Laura was glad because they were leaving town, Pa was glad because he always liked moving, and Grace sang and shouted in gladness because all the others were glad. 
By the end of the story, they were settled on the claim and beginning their new, hopeful life in the West, although Laura always wished to keep going West.

Pa playing his fiddle.


  1. I really like this one. Reading these as an adult has been a great experience as I can appreciate the realities behind them better!

    1. Agree. While I never read them as a child, I know I would have missed so much that I pick up now as an adult. Laura was quite successful in being able to appeal to both young and mature audiences.

  2. I love the movement from melancholy to optimism you've mentioned. That really is what By the Shores is all about. Those descriptions of the west just draw us in, as always. And yes, we can't help smiling because those two older girls are so different from each other, in many more ways than one. I'm glad you highlighted Ma's advice to Laura to be ladylike, because she really was a woman of her times. I remember she called Lena 'boisterous'in that section. Maybe the word 'tomboy' hadn't been invented yet :D