By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder opens on a sad time. Everyone in the family except Pa and Laura have had scarlet fever, and Mary has been left blind. Pa has no idea how he will pay the bill for the doctor, who has come every day. In the previous book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, the family had experienced a devastating grasshopper invasion, prairie fires, and blizzards. They were about at the end of their rope at this point, when a relative visits with a job offer for Charles. Her husband was a contractor working with the railroads, and needed a good man to be the “storekeeper, bookkeeper, and time keeper” at a railroad camp. The job would pay $50 a month, and there was an opportunity to claim a homestead. Ma doesn’t want to leave and wants the family to be settled, but agrees this opportunity seems providential. The sale of their farm covers all their expenses and provides a little extra. Pa goes on ahead to start the job while Ma and the girls continue to recuperate and gain strength and then get ready to move. They come later on the train – a new experience for all of them, and I particularly enjoyed Laura’s description of how it both scared and excited her. Laura “knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times they were living in…in one morning, they had actually traveled a whole week’s journey.” Pa later muses, “I wouldn’t wonder if you’ll live to see a time, Laura, when pretty nearly everybody’ll ride on railroads and there’ll hardly be a covered wagon left.”
First they get used to the railroad camp, where Ma instructs the girls to stay away from the “rough men,” but Pa indulges Laura’s curiosity one day and takes her to see the construction and explain it all to her.
Then, when that section of the railroad is done and the camp breaks up for winter, the Ingalls family is offered use of the surveyors’ house for the winter. The surveyors will be gone for the winter but the house is snug and well-stocked, and that will allow the family to save money by staying on instead of having to travel back East. Plus they’ll get a head start on claiming their homestead before spring, when great numbers are expected to travel west. But their nearest neighbor is 60 miles away on one side and 40 on the other. Introvert that I am, that would be a little too isolated for even me! But as it turns out, they do have more visitors than expected, and as they are in the only occupied house on the prairie at that time, they provide a lot of hospitality when people come.
There are dangers with wolves, unruly men, claim jumpers, horse thieves and the possibility that Pa might miss out on his claim. There is a joyous Christmas, lots of violin playing in the winter evenings, the springing up of a new town almost overnight come springtime, meeting new friends and unexpectedly coming across a few old ones.
A few observations:
Laura is almost 13 and starts out a little weary this time, as the main helper to the family after Mary’s illness, though Mary eventually recovers some abilities and helps keep little Grace entertained.
Their parents ask Laura to be Mary’s eyes and describe things to her, and I can’t help but think that sharpened both her skills of observations and her descriptive ability. Mary tells Laura she “makes pictures when she talks.”
There is one remark by and about Ma concerning Indians that makes one wince and would be considered racist today. I think it was primarily motivated by fear: they had had some scary encounters with Indians in Little House on the Prairie, and of course the Indians had right to be upset with the white man’s encroachment on their lands. But their main ways of fighting back were, of course, terribly frightening to white people, so it is no wonder there were bad feelings on both sides that took ages to begin to overcome (and is not completely overcome even now).
I appreciated the way Ma tried to teach the girls to “know how to behave, to speak nicely in low voices and have gentle manners and always be ladies” despite the rough and uncivilized places they lived.
During the days of building a building in town and then a claim shanty were days that would have been very hard for me, as they lived in unfinished places (waking up one morning with a foot of snow on top of them in the house from an unexpected blizzard) and continued building around themselves. It was for them as well, but they took it in stride. Pa comments once, “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.”
I am glad Laura included words to many of the songs that Pa played and the family sang. I knew many of them, and that helped me imagine the scenes.
Laura catches a fleeting glimpse of her future husband, Almanzo, but at this point she’s primarily interested in his beautiful horses and has no idea of their future.
Laura shares her Pa’s desire to explore and would rather continue to travel and see new places rather than settle down, but Pa promised Ma they would finally stay put.
I was puzzled by Ma’s suppression of the girls’ outbursts of emotion, laughter as well as anger. The family did laugh quite a lot, but there were times Ma restrained them in situations where, these days, we wouldn’t have a problem. I think that was just what politeness and”ladylikeness” looked like at that time. I am all for teaching children restraint and self-control; it just went farther than what we would consider necessary by today’s standards.
Once again I enjoyed this glimpse into our country’s history as well as into the Ingalls family. There is always much I admire about them. This would be an excellent book for children to read to understand how the Homestead Act worked out in real life and what people had to go through to settle in a new area then. But it is a good book to just read for enjoyment as well.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)