By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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.

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27 comments

  1. This was my favorite when I read it (until the books that came after it.) I absolutely adored it!! I love the Christams scene in the surveyor’s house. :-)

  2. It’s been ages since I read this one but, yes, the series does take a big turn here. I had never really thought about it, but this really is the book where Laura starts to move toward adulthood and a sort of de facto eldest child status.

  3. I loved By the Shores of Silver Lake. I remember feeling so saddened and a little shocked when I first read it and discovered that Mary had lost her eyesight. Of course, they had already seen troubles with the grasshoppers and bad weather and such, but, this, I think, is when Laura realizes that change comes in life and on the prairie, and her carefree days are ending.

    I was happy for Laura to be able to meet her cousins and see some of their relatives. Having grown up with my cousins so close, I could not imagine being so far away from them and letters taking so long to arrive. Some of the change was good.

    You have done such a tender job of telling this, Rachel, and of garnishing the essence of the story and the pioneer/homesteading experience. I think the next book is really one of my favorites, The Long Winter – I always read it during a big snowstorm, especially this year. I’ll be anxious to read your review of it.

    I see you are to be reading one of my all-time favorite books. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I can’t wait to read your review, especially with your time in NYC so close at hand.

    1. I know, I was surpised by how matter of fact they were about it, and it threw me for a loop. It adds a real poignancy to the book, and Mary’s sweet temper is no longer a source of annoyance but a demonstration of her ability to get on with life with good grace – testament to Ma’s careful raising of her girls.

      Thank you Penny, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I have The Long Winter lined up and ready to go – I can’t wait!

      Oh Penny, I am just loving A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it years ago when my mum bought it for me when I was about 13, and I had forgotten most of it. It is such a rich book and having lived here and experienced Brooklyn first hand, I am getting so much from the stories Smith tells of turn of the century New York. I think everyone should read it!

  4. I assume my mother read this book to me when I was very small, but if she didn’t, I never read it. I hated the idea that Mary was going to go blind (how did she still sew, by the way? I don’t get it!). I’m petrified of going blind. I read the subsequent books where she was blind, but I may actually have completely skipped this one.

    1. I know, I knew it was coming but it still made me so sad. Mary is amazing – she is so good at sewing that she doesn’t need to see – she feels it all with her fingers. That’s talent!

  5. When I discovered these books, I was 10, and after loving Plum Creek and Farmers Boy, when I read the beginning of Silver Lake, I put the book down and didn’t get it out of the library again for years–it was such a jump from the events of Plum Creek although I’m afraid I was more upset at that age about Jack than Mary’s blindness. I enjoy how you put the changes in context and am enjoying your thoughts as you go through the series. Looking forward to your thoughts on a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, too–a wonderfully rich book.

    1. Oh Jack! Yes, that was dreadful. :( I can totally understand your reluctance to read it as a child – it is a big jump and the carefree tone of the earlier books almost completely disappears.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review! And I am LOVING A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – such a fantastic, beautiful, life affirming book. I am just in love with it!

  6. I always think of this book as the turning point in Laura’s adventures. I also wonder if the reason Laura only taught for a brief period of time and married at a young age was because she never really wanted to be a teacher, that it was her family’s dream for Mary and they transferred that dream to Laura when Mary became blind. I think in this book you see much more tension beneath the surface of the family. A good book, but not my favorite little house book.

    BTW, have you heard about Wendy McClure’s recently-published memoir THE WILDER LIFE? She goes on a road-trip, following the routes the Ingalls family took as the moved across the country. I have it on hold at the library right now, but, as you’d expect, there are a few requests ahead of me. Can’t wait to read it!

    1. Yes I should think there’s a lot of truth in that – it’s pretty clear that Laura has no desire to teach or settle down whatsoever, and I admire her strength of character in being prepared to take on a life she didn’t want for the good of her family. I agree with you about the tension as well – Ma and Pa’s differing desires are definitely more fleshed out and become a greater issue than in the previous books.

      Yes – I got it from the library a couple of weeks ago and started it, but I didn’t like it and returned it without finishing. It was more about her exorcising some personal demons rather than Laura, and her 70′s childhood, obsession with the books, and knowledge of the stories intimately were things I couldn’t identify with, so the purpose of the book as a funny take on Laura obsession in childhood didn’t mean anything to me. I think if you grew up on Laura then this would strike a chord with you, but I didn’t get on with it and I didn’t enjoy Wendy’s writing style either. A bit too confessional, hang it all out bare for my liking. But I hope you enjoy it more than I did!

  7. Love your blog, Rachel, but sometimes wish you gave slightly less detailed reviews – this book sounds lovely, but I feel I know the complete story now, and feel less inclined to read it.

    1. Thank you! I’m so sorry I made you feel that way by saying too much – these are such cult books that I assumed I wouldn’t be spoiling them for anyone. Even so, there is a lot more to the book than what I’ve described so you really wouldn’t be knowing the complete story going into it. I hope you’ll still consider giving it a go!

  8. I was just having a conversation with two of my friends about this series. I read the books after watching tv series as a child so I imagined everything with the tv actors. One of my friends read the books as an adult in the UK but hasn’t see the tv series. And my other friend who grew up in the States read the books and then watched the tv series and said that Michael Landon didn’t fit his image of Pa. Have you seen the tv series? And will you, after reading the books?

    1. I have seen a couple of episodes but not to the point where I would picture the characters when reading the books, which is what I would prefer. I hate it when a TV/film version has ruined my capacity to imagine!

      I’m not sure I will watch the series – it’s so different from the books, from what I’ve read, that it will just be a disappointment, no doubt.

  9. I haven’t read this one in years! I really should give it a reread. I did read parts of Little House in the Big Woods not long ago, it was a bedtime read for my youngest. I loved it just as much as an adult as I did when I was a child. Curse my TBR shelf for being so big, it is really preventing some much-needed rereads.

    1. Karen, you should reread this with your kids! Perfect for going down memory lane and you can pass on the love of the series to your children.

  10. You got it just right. This is the transition book. The next books are the town books and they are wonderful. I remember several undercurrents in this book. The big one, I think, is that this is where Pa finally gives in to Ma and agrees to settle in one place. It is melancholy but it also seems to be the best choice. It’s very subtly done. The other undercurrent I remember is that we start to see the effects of how Ma raised Laura and Mary. Cousin Lena was raised by looser hand and it shows. She’s a nice girl, but you can feel Ma’s message to Laura, that she is better than that.
    Poor Mary. But I love the almost offhand way the book treats her blindness. Sort of, “oh, by the way, Mary is blind now. Okay, on with the story…”

    1. You are so right, Nancy – it’s definitely a transition book and highlights just how much Pa and Ma have had to compromise in order to build a life together. It’s so much more mature and perceptive and while I enjoyed that, I did miss the innocence and light heartedness of the earlier books.

      I know! Exactly! I was surprised by how matter of fact she was about it – but I suppose the Ingalls’ weren’t the type to make a fuss, were they?

  11. Oh my goodness, I nearly forgot about these books (or at least the fact that there was an entire series of them!). I’ve been taking a stroll through the JUV FIC section of my local library to find some childhood favorites to re-read. Might have to give these a go-around! I’m not sure I ever read the complete series back when I was a kid in the first place.

  12. I was so pleased to read this review because I had just been thinking that maybe I would start reading the Little House books to my son. You’ve definitely decided me!

  13. This has always been one of my favorites. I love the descriptions of the geese landing on Silver Lake. I am always impressed that the Ingalls family has gone through so much, yet they never give up. I wonder what Ma and Pa would have thought about becoming one of our most famous pioneer families. They would have laughed if someone would have predicted it.. They kept going even though there was no welfare and no pills to take to keep from getting depressed, no public housing, etc. A man was admired because people knew that he was honorable. I am very proud of our pioneer heritage.

    1. I love that about the Ingalls too – that sort of tenacity and strength is rare to see these days. I am proud of them and what they achieved – they asked for no praise or fame and because of that I am glad they have received the adoration and respect they truly deserve through the Little House books.

  14. When I was a girl, this was my least favorite book. Now I understand that it’s because of the transition. I find it very interesting and readable now. My favorite in the series is The Long Winter.

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