My adventures with the Ingalls family continue! This is the fifth installment in the series and has a very different feel from the others, as the family spend the majority of their time in an urban setting. More than the previous books, By the Shores of Silver Lake demonstrates the rapid modernisation that took hold across America since the Ingalls’ time in the Big Woods, and how popular ‘homesteading’ had become, with towns and communities springing up all across the quickly urbanising prairie. The novel opens with Pa’s sister, Aunt Docia, who we first met in Little House in the Big Woods, stopping off at the Ingalls’ cabin at Plum Creek to tell them of a job for Pa in a railroad camp out West in Dakota, where she is heading to meet her husband. Pa’s land, decimated from the grasshopper plague, has failed to yield a crop for a second year, and the family are desperate for money. With a steady salary being offered, Pa and Ma are not in a position to refuse this offer, despite it taking them away from Plum Creek. So Pa heads out West, and Ma agrees to follow later with the girls, when poor Mary, who has been blinded due to scarlet fever, is well enough to travel.
Ma and the girls’ journey to meet Pa is a clear sign of how times have moved on. There is no covered wagon, no arduous weeks-long journey across uncertain terrain. Instead, they take the train, sitting in comfort as the prairie whizzes past their windows, arriving at their destination within a day. When they arrive, it turns out that the men at the camp are just packing up to move to another camp further out West, and so they hitch up a wagon and move on over to Silver Lake, where furious activity is going on in order to build a new section of railroad, and a new town. Ma and the girls are shocked to find themselves in the midst of a bustling railroad camp, filled with bawdy working men, hastily constructed wooden houses and muddy, debris strewn roads. They must live in a tiny shanty, and in close contact with other people for the first time in many years. There are some compensations, though; Ma’s brother and other family members are also at the camp, looking to earn some steady money and go on to homestead out West, and so Ma and the girls have company while Pa works hard as the camp storekeeper.
Ma and Pa keep home life as normal as possible for the girls, and while poor Mary can no longer do much but sit inside and sew, Laura takes much delight in the beauty of Silver Lake and in watching the rhythmic actions of the men building the railroad outside her front door. She also enjoys the boisterous company of her cousin Lena, with whom she has many adventures in and around the camp as they keep themselves busy exploring their new home. However, there are rumbles of discontent inside the camp, which the girls cannot be protected from. Foremen in neighbouring camps have been beaten and even killed by the men working for them due to disputes over pay, and on payday at Silver Lake, a riot breaks out when Pa gives the men their wages, which are lower than they expect. The men try to attack Pa, but luckily Big Jerry, the local Indian Chief, turns up just in time to lead the men away to a neighbouring camp, which they go on to loot. This triggers the breaking up of the camp, and now it is winter, and with no homestead of their own yet, Pa decides that the best option will be to move back East until spring.
However, a surprise offer comes the family’s way; they are given the chance to spend the winter, free of charge, in the surveyor’s house, which is large, comfortable and stocked with food and luxurious provisions the family could never dream to have afforded for themselves. As a harsh winter sets in, the family settle down to another Christmas, secretly making presents for each other and able to plan an exciting feast with the fancy tinned goods that the surveyor had in his pantry. On Christmas Eve, while the family are singing carols by the fire, there is a big surprise; one of Pa’s friends from camp has come back with his new wife, wanting to find a homestead before the rush. Not realising there was anyone still out at the Lake, Mr and Mrs Boast are relieved and delighted to find a warm and welcoming home in which to spend Christmas. Ma manages to rustle up enough food and presents for the newcomers, and they have a beautiful Christmas, singing along to the fiddle, safe and warm inside the sturdy plank house on the edge of Silver Lake as the snow falls outside.
As soon as the snow is melted, the Ingalls’ and Boasts are shocked to see themselves inundated with homesteaders flooding across to stake their claims on the wide expanses of Dakota land the government has opened up for settling. These homesteaders, mainly single men who have come ahead of their families, descend upon Ma and Mrs Boast, asking them for shelter and a cooked dinner. Ma and Mrs Boast oblige, but soon the flood of men coming is so phenomenal that they realise money can be made from this, and start charging the men for their meals and board. As new people come and go every day, the women make a huge amount of money, and lively Laura mucks in, washing plates and ferrying dinners to and from tables of hungry men. Hordes of people have come to settle in the town that is being built by the railroad camp, and soon the Ingalls find themselves living in the heart of this bustling new community, where Pa has built them a temporary house. Pa has also filed a claim on a homestead, however, and when he hears that a man was murdered over a disputed claim, he decides to stop waiting to sell the house in town and take his family out to their new home. As the book closes, the Ingalls are settled in a new wooden house on a beautiful expanse of Dakota prairie, within striking distance of town and ready to settle down for the long term. To the strains of Pa’s fiddle Laura sings the words of ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and she is content to rest her adventurous legs, for now.
By the Shores of Silver Lake is quite different from the other books, being based in a camp and town setting. There are no animals, no harvests, no fields and no farm chores, and it also feels much more mature than the earlier books, as Laura’s sense of responsibility grows. With Mary blind and unable to take care of her younger siblings or help around the house, Laura has to take on the role of the elder sibling and can no longer be as free roaming and irresponsible as she once was. Ma and Pa tell her that they are hoping she will now become a teacher, a dream they once had for Mary, and this responsibility sits heavily on her shoulders. The world is changing; it is no longer the innocent and empty wide open land of the previous books; more and more people are encroaching upon the prairie, the buffalo are fast disappearing, and the railroad has begun to snake its way across the once wild and uninhabited terrain. Homesteading has become a popular pursuit, and everyone is looking to make profits from doing so. The neighbourly warmth of the old pioneers, who were lured by the love of wide open spaces rather than a quick buck, is not what it was, and violence is not unusual amongst this new generation of settlers, who are only out for themselves. The romance of the covered wagon rumbling off into the horizon, bound for uncharted lands, is already becoming a thing of the past, and the simple days of Laura’s idyllic childhood seem very far away.
Living in isolation is no longer an option for the Ingalls’, and as the girls grow older and their need for education and friendships increase, Pa must accept that he cannot keep his family roaming forever. Ma longs for society, and for a settled home; Laura, like her father, would be content to keep moving forever, but both of them know they must put down some roots, especially as Mary is now disabled and will need the support of a wider community. As exciting and full of modernity, change and thrilling action as this book is, there is also an undercurrent of melancholy. The Ingalls’ have been hit hard by the loss of their old home, their financial woes, Mary’s blindness and their lack of somewhere permanent to settle. Laura can no longer go to sleep to the strains of the fiddle, safe in the knowledge that Pa and Ma will protect her from harm; harm has come to the family, and caused great damage, and the repercussions of this have told in their new way of life. Laura, like the rolling prairie she so loves, cannot stay innocent forever; the march of time and progress are sweeping her along, and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter of her story will bring.