Chloe’s Book Club: By The Shores Of Silver Lake

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.

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

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.


Garth Williams illustration.

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.

The Surveyors' House


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.


18 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: By The Shores Of Silver Lake”

  1. Jane Heitman Healy Says:

    I grew up about 25 miles from DeSmet, so these stories are very much a part of me. My teacher read Silver Lake aloud to us in school. I haven’t read it myself since childhood, and I find your reflections here of interest. In the paragraph you quote about Laura spreading her arms wide to the wind, I think grown-up author Laura may have been remembering that bittersweet time of leaving childhood behind–and holding on to a bit of the wild inside her. I look forward to reading Death on the Prairie to see how you’ve incorporated Laura’s story into your mystery.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jane. I like “bittersweet,” because I imagine that’s exactly how author Laura might have felt looking back to those moments of leaving childhood behind. I also like to think that she never truly lost that bit of wild inside her! I hope you enjoy Death on the Prairie.

  2. Sean Patrick Little (@WiscoWriterGuy) Says:

    This book was a transition point in Wilder’s writing style, to me. The first four were written more for younger readers, but Wilder matured a bit here. She actually talked about darker subject matters for the first time, even though we might not have feared for Pa as the railroad paymaster, the fact that she discussed the murder of another paymaster was pretty telling that we were moving into darker waters.

    I think the book’s zenith was during the winter when they were alone on Silver Lake. The stories of the comfort they had there during the blizzards, and then the Boasts and Rev. Alden finding them are cozy and lovely. However, when the spring hits and people start showing up and Ma has to take them in as boarders because there is nowhere else to go, it gets darker again.

    All in all, it’s not one of my favorite of the series, but there are some very nice parts in it.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I appreciate your thoughts, Sean. Interesting point about not just topics changing, but Laura’s writing style. She made a deliberate choice to include those darker themes, including the murder, the parental warning to stay away from the “rough” railroad workers, the man trailing them across the prairie, drunken boarders, etc. I’m very glad she balanced those things with the winter scenes. As long as the family stayed together, and welcomed good friends, those bad scary things couldn’t overpower the good.

  3. Kathy Cannon Wiechman Says:

    I loved the whole series, re-reading them numerous times and visiting DeSmet as an adult. Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter were my favorites as a child. When Laura outgrew her childhood ways, I felt no sadness because I was at the point in my life where growing up was something to look forward to and I liked watching Laura assume more adult responsibilities. As an adult, I enjoyed her wild streak and was glad to see her sometimes revert to childish moments, which I believe we all like to do when we have the opportunity.

  4. Jill Nisbet Says:

    I guess this book has always made me feel a little bit melancholy in ways I didn’t really understand. I never really put it together before but it is probably all the transitions you mentioned. I never really wanted the family to leave Plum Creek but if they had to I wanted to keep going west like Pa and Laura and not settle down.. I really didn’t want the girls to grow up and have to be young ladies and all that entailed. Of course I liked where Laura and Lena got to tear around on wild ponies. Although I do now know why Ma was concerned. The cozy scenes with the Boast!s will always be very special. The scene that really made an impression on me was one of the smallest. Do you remember when Laura was looking at all the food in the surveyor’s marvellous house and she was so happy that they got to eat canned peaches? I didn’t even like canned peaches that much and she was so grateful for them. I remember feeling absolutely humbled and a little ashamed that I had so much and she had so little. I wished I could have given Laura every canned peach we had and any other good thing she wanted to eat too.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I loved Plum Creek (and it’s one of my favorite sites to visit), because of all the fun childhood adventures Laura had there. Ending up in a rough railroad camp wasn’t quite what I wanted for the family. I do so appreciate your comments about both the Boasts and moving into the surveyors’ house. When I visited the house in De Smet all I could think of was Laura’s descriptions of what a big place it was, and to my eyes it was small. I always had similar feelings as you describe when reading the always-marvelous Christmas scenes. They took such joy and pleasure in simple things!

  5. Robin Woods Says:

    It’s been a while since I had my Laura Ingalls Wilder obsessed time. I go through times of reading all one author or of a subject. I never left my “home” area until I married at 22 and then returned to it after divorcing at 40. I recall feeling that it was the end of Laura being a little girl, what FUN she had with Lena and on that ride! The freedom she must have felt is grand. Pa never let them ride his horses so the forbidden was also involved here.
    I am excited to read “Death on the Prarie” to find out about the area as my daughter is living in Omaha, NB at present.

  6. MaryAnn Forbes Says:

    I enjoyed your post; I must read the series. I enjoyed the TV show very much yet somehow I missed reading the books–never too late.📚

  7. Anne Seebaldt Says:

    I love the whole series. Never thought of this book in the way you describe, but based on my last reading of it nearly 20 years ago, I tend to agree. You made me want to reread the series!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Anne, I took a long break between reading the books as a kid and re-reading as an adult, and I enjoyed them just as much. I found myself picking up on things that went over my head as a child. I recommend it! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Catherine Strasser Says:

    I did not find this book melancholy in the way you mentioned about having to take on the responsibilities of growing up, I saw it more as having to take on the skills needed to live in a more settled area. In many of the earlier books, the family ( or more specifically Pa) was looking to live in a more isolated situation. In this book, the family seems to give up that dream and decide to live closer to civilization.It does change their interaction with the world, and maybe in a good way, as we see from Laura’s joy in her friendship with Lena and her delight in the comfortably built and well stocked surveyor’s house.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve always seen Laura as sharing Pa’s restlessness and and wanderlust. But one of the wonderful things about books is that different people can interpret them differently. I think most of us can agree that, as you said, Laura’s joy with Lena, and with the almost-magically wonderful surveyors’ house, is pure reading pleasure. :>)

  9. Lois Scorgie Says:

    I just closed BY THE SHORES OF SILVER LAKE. I especially enjoyed their winter in the surveyors house. Pa said………I don’t know how they can have more solid comfort than we’ve got for a fact.” Yes, the Wilders’ life was at it’s best that winter. Pa and Laura had the open prairie. They were warm, well fed with just enough companions. Oh, the music which came from Pa’s fiddle when he was content.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, I agree–the wonderful winter scenes provide a needed balance to some of the more difficult moments. Laura’s joy when she entered the surveyors’ house for the first time is a passage that sticks with me. Thanks for sharing!

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