When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations to accompany the story by Garth Williams. Eventually, I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I purchased a second set for my nine-year-old.
About a year later I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately, my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hand-off for the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.
By The Shores of Silver Lake picks up many years after events in the previous book, On The Banks of Plum Creek. What has actually happened in the intervening years is detailed in numerous biographies of the author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here, however, she glosses over some unfortunate times for the family.
There is now a fourth child in the Ingalls family, baby Grace. No mention is made of the brother who was born and died several months later. By The Shores of Silver Lake also picks up with the family in the same location they were at the end of the previous book. No mention is made of their move to a larger town for a period of time.
Laura does talk somewhat about the events which prompted the move. Pa had been unable to make a money crop and had worked various odd jobs just to keep the family getting by in a land that seemed to not want them around. The family had been shaken by a devastating illness as well, scarlet fever. This left Laura’s older sister Mary blind and Pa deep in debt to the doctor.
Along comes a relative from “back East” – Wisconsin. Pa’s sister Docia came with a job offer for him with the railroads which were being built to the west. For once providence seems to be on their side, although just prior to Pa leaving Laura’s beloved pet and friend passes away and is buried.
The Ingalls women must wait until Mary is strong enough to travel, but soon they are on their way west aboard a train to meet up with Pa. There Laura is exposed to a seedier side of prairie life, with rough men working for railroad gangs. There are robbers and horse thieves to contend with. All the while, Pa is looking for a new place for them to settle.
After spending the winter house-sitting the railroad surveyor’s home, Pa finally finds the ideal place, only to have to worry about claim jumpers. As the town of DeSmet, South Dakota grows around them, Pa stakes a claim by putting a building up on Main Street. As they are finally moving out to the new home, Laura catches her first glimpse of the man who will one day become her husband, Almanzo Wilder.
It’s amazing to read about the trials and tribulations the family faces and still manages to keep their spirits up. The family is beyond poor, but Laura and her sister Carrie manage to have fun in their new life. Laura makes a friend in a step-cousin named Lena who seems to have had a life less sheltered than Laura’s and is more what I would term street-smart for her day.
The seeds for Laura’s amazing descriptive prose are sown here as well as she must become Mary’s eyes for her and describe to her all the things she can no longer see. The relationship between the three sisters is somewhat different than it was before. It’s interesting to see the new dynamic. Some of it might have to do with Laura’s maturing in addition to the adversity they face.
In previous books, there was more focus on the family’s spirituality. Although there is no regular church attendance their spirituality is still evident. The family embraces their former Reverend from Minnesota when he travels through the area. Soon more and more travelers are coming through their residence and in God’s providence it ends up providing a means of support for the family.
I have to believe Laura glossed over the events between the two books because it was such a deeply painful time for her as well as being somewhat depressing. It’s hard to read about adversity over and over again and not have the feeling that something has to give. Either that or the characters end up feeling too much like a Pollyanna, which I think was partially the danger in her dwelling on that time too much.
In By The Shores of Silver Lake there are some truly good times and some fun. I had the feeling of them leaving bad times behind and things would be looking up for the Ingalls family soon. That seems to be the tone Laura writes this book with. In that respect, it’s better for her not to dwell on the bad things but use them instead to tell the story. It’s inspirational to children who think their lives are difficult to read about what this family goes through and still manages to find the faith to wake up each day.
The book reads quite well and was a pleasure to read with my daughters. They enjoyed the story as they tried to envision the life Laura describes. I believe seven is the youngest age I would try to start reading these books with a child. Even then, it is sometimes hard for them to comprehend a life so different from their own. In her writing, Laura manages to describe in great detail the daily chores and lifestyle of a time long ago. At the same time, I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. I especially liked the description of the building of the railroad, and my daughters were fascinated by that as well. I love reading this book with my children because we can all imagine what life was like back then so well and at the same time it brings up interesting discussions of the differences.
My new edition of By The Shores of Silver Lake is a paperback-bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. The cover picture shows Laura riding a beautiful shiny brown horse over a golden and green prairie in a bright red dress with her long brown tresses flowing behind her much as the horse’s mane and tail flow behind it. Though the other pictures aren’t quite as vivid as this, seeing them in full color brings them to life in a very different way. I loved looking at the pictures of the girls all in different color dresses, such as the one where they’re building the what-not.
In other books, I noticed an increase in the font size with the new editions. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this edition of By The Shores of Silver Lake. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.
If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience that will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.
Previous book in the series (link): On The Banks of Plum Creek
Next episode in the series (link): The Long Winter