A reader last time mentioned that she felt On The Banks Of Plum Creek was the last “childhood” book. To build on that idea, I think of By The Shores Of Silver Lake as a transitional, coming-of-age book.
The book opens with a bit of backstory, explaining that everyone in the family except Laura and Pa had been stricken with scarlet fever. The neighbors had been sick too, so there had been no one to help. Mary has gone blind. Bills are mounting. After this experience, Laura is certainly no longer a child.
Then Aunt Docia arrives and offers Pa a job in a railroad camp in Dakota Territory. Before the family leaves—in a scene I can’t read without getting a lump in my throat—Laura’s beloved dog Jack dies.
In the camp Laura meets her cousin Lena, who has an appealing wild streak. Lena represents the last of Laura’s childhood.
The girls set out in a buggy to deliver laundry:
The trotting ponies touched noses, gave a little squeal and ran. …The ponies were stretched out low, running with all their might.
They’re running away!” Laura cried out.
“Let ’em run!” Lena shouted, slapping them with the lines.
And when the girls hear about a thirteen-year-old getting married: “May I drive now?” Laura asked. She wanted to forget about growing up.
When Lena takes Laura riding on the ponies, Laura confesses that she’s never ridden before. That leads to one of my favorite lines: (The pony) was big and strong enough to kill Laura if it wanted to, and so high that to fall off it would break her bones. She was so scared she had to try.
Later, when Ma admonishes Laura against spending time with Lena, we realize that Laura’s exuberant fun is behind her.
When the family spends the winter alone in a surveyors’ house beside Silver Lake, we see more of Laura’s spirit.
No matter how cold the weather, she loves to go outside and slide on the ice: Those were glorious days when they were out in the glitter of sharp cold. One moonlit night, when Laura is too restless to settle, she talks Ma into letting her and little sister Carrie go outside to run on the ice. The girls cross the frozen lake, see a wolf, and run home. Pa announces that he’ll hunt the wolf.
“I hope you don’t find the wolf, Pa,” Laura said.
“Whyever not?” Ma wondered.
“Because he didn’t chase us,” Laura told her.
I didn’t have strong feelings about this book one way or another as a child. Now, I find myself lamenting Laura’s inevitable slide toward adolescence, duty, and domesticity. Ma wants her girls to behave properly, with decorum. She wants them to have gentle manners and always be ladies.
For example, one of my favorite passages comes toward the end of the book:
Laura spread her arms wide to the wind and ran against it. She flung herself on the flowery grass and rolled like a colt. She lay in the soft, sweet grasses and looked at the great blueness above her and the high, pearly clouds sailing in it. She was so happy that tears came into her eyes.
But we don’t get to enjoy Laura’s joy for long:
Suddenly she thought, “Have I got a grass stain on my dress?” She stood up and anxiously looked, and there was a green stain on the calico. Soberly she knew that she should be helping Ma, and she hurried to the little dark tar-paper shanty.
Although I find some of the themes sad, I also admire the author’s ability to beautifully convey fictional Laura’s complexities. Re-reading, I found lovely symbolism and language I’d missed earlier.
How did you react to reading By The Shores Of Silver Lake? Is it one of your favorites, or not so much?
Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.
Next up for discussion: The Long Winter.