By the Shores of Silver Lake
by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I may have been sold on this book by the section where Ma mourns the lack of trees on the prairie. I do love me some trees. This is book 5 in the Little House series, by the way, so this may contain spoilers if you haven’t read them.
Laura’s getting all grown up! I almost don’t want to carry on with the series now, but leave them all here, with 13-year-old Laura interested in that Wilder boy only for his beautiful horse. Wilder has apparently skipped the few years her family spent running a hotel in Iowa so that her fictional age and real-life age finally match up. This might be because she had a baby brother who died during that time, which isn’t exactly kids’ book material. Or it might be because living in an established town and running a hotel doesn’t fit the pioneer theme of the series.
Despite skipping over the baby brother, this book has a pretty depressing opening. Obviously bad stuff does happen in life and Wilder chose not to omit all of it from the books, so she threw it all into the opening chapters of this volume (or that’s how it felt reading it). The first chapter is actually a bit of a catch-up because a couple of years have passed since the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Carrie is no longer a baby, but now there’s new baby Grace. And they’ve all had scarlet fever, which has caused Mary to lose her sight, so Laura must be Mary’s eyes. (This is actually rather well dealt with and reminded me a lot of the Helen Keller book I read recently.)
Once again Pa has itchy feet. He wants to go out west but Ma will only agree to go where there will be a school nearby, so they head to Dakota, where a new town is planned for the following spring on the path of a railroad that’s under construction.
I enjoyed the children riding on a train for the first time, and the combination of excitement and fear that came with that. I liked the interactions with some very different people – the construction crews and fellow would-be settlers are a wilder lot than the townfolk they’ve left behind in Plum Creek.
In this book I really felt how much this series is teaching me about the history of the USA. It is so strange to be sat here in a house that’s older than the town the Ingalls family helped to create, back in 1879. Obviously this is a children’s book so it doesn’t go into the politics of the population boom in Dakota, or the question of it being a territory rather than a state, but the fact that I have gone and looked up that history says something about Wilder’s ability to drop in just enough detail to pique interest. Some details might well be coloured by hindsight – did Pa really talk about how all the buffalo are gone because white men have come and shot them all? Or is that 20th century Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking? But really I don’t mind that and it’s interesting to see what Wilder does choose to comment on.
On reflection, a lot happens in this book. It meets the same criteria as Plum Creek, in that it’s well written but also has plenty of story and isn’t hideously racist. There is actually a slightly dodgy character who’s half American Indian but he’s Pa’s friend and Laura really likes him so Ma’s distrust passes as just one character being racist, rather than Wilder herself.
“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in 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.”
Published 1939 by Harper & Brothers.
Source: Google Books.