By The Shores Of Silver Lake: Literary Overview (Part 3)

As we discussed in the last lecture,’By the Shores of Silver Lake’ posed several creative challenges for Wilder. Not only was it her first young adult novel, but the YA category itself hadn’t really been invented yet. So how to deal with an older protagonist and the more adult stuff she would realistically have to confront in this book? And then,what to do about Mary and her loss of sight? Would that be a roadblock to young readers? Finally, how could Wilder reasonably skip over her real family ‘s history in Burr Oak,Iowa, and their eventual return to Walnut Grove? Somehow,Wilder had to jump over two years in her own family history and in Laura’s fictional one. Perhaps this is why Wilder and Lane argued over where to begin ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake.’ Let’s start with Wilder’s original opening for the novel: “A woman holding a small child on her arms and a small girl by the hand,walked across the depot platform to the one passenger car at the end of the train. Two larger girls,hand in hand,followed her.” This is from the draft manuscript for’By the Shores of Silver Lake.’ Notice that in this draft,the opening lines don’t center on Laura or her limited third person point of view. Instead,this is an almost cinematic perspective. It reads like a screenplay, and in your minds eye you can visualize the scene. In fact,Wilder didn’t move in to Laura’s perspective until the second page of this draft. This change in perspective was probably a strategic creative decision on Wilder’s part.It allowed her to gloss over the historical fact that her family had moved from their Plum Creek farmhouse,to Iowa, and then back to a house in town in Walnut Grove. In other words,it avoided inconvenient specifics. When Lane read this opening, she objected: “It is not written from Laura’s viewpoint. I think your lead should be Aunt Docia driving up unexpectedly to the house on the banks of Plum Creek.” By this time, Lane had left Missouri for good, and in 1937 moved to New York. Wilder was back in the farmhouse here at Rocky Ridge. Gone were the days when the two of them could discuss and perhaps even argue personally about editorial decisions in the’Little House’ books. So the editorial correspondence between the two women gives us a glimpse into how they worked together. What emerges is an interesting argument about where the novel should begin, and underscores their mutual understanding of the importance of getting a story ‘s opening just right. In this instance, Wilder initially stuck by her guns. She didn’t agree with Lane’s suggestions to start the book at Plum Creek with Aunt Docia’s arrival. Wilder maintained it would take the interest of the reader back to Plum Creek,instead of ahead with curiosity as to what lies ahead in the story. Furthermore, Wilder believed Lane’s suggestion would begin the story with a recital of discouragement and calamities. In short,Wilder wanted to begin’By the Shores of Silver Lake’ right in the middle of things, to skip ahead to the point where the novel begins its real forward action, very much like many modern screenplays. Lane,however,wanted a clear transition between the two books. For her,if Wilder wanted to skip over two years of the fictional family’s life,then’Silver Lake’ should at least begin where’On the Banks of Plum Creek’had left off: at the Plum Creek house. Ultimately,Lane won this argument. ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake’begins at the house as Aunt Docia drives up,and it is a very effective opening, perhaps because Wilder herself won the bigger editorial arguments about audience, character,situation,and even story. In the end, Wilder and Lane struck a brilliant editorial compromise,one that reflects their unique writing and editing strengths: Lane’s ability to deal with narrative structure and perspective, and Wilder’s seemingly intuitive sense of character and story,as well as her unique descriptive powers, her gift of language. As Lane herself wrote: “I don’t see how anybody could improve on your use of words. You are perfect in describing landscape and things.” So,’By the Shores of Silver Lake’ begins where it should, with an older,more mature Laura standing in the doorway of the Plum Creek house washing dishes. In this literary moment, Laura becomes a timeless teenager, just as Wilder envisioned her. As she argued with Lane about character and plot, at times completely grown-up and again just a child. The book itself,as we’ve seen, is about change and maturity, signaled in the opening chapter by the arrival of Aunt Docia, and followed by Jack’s death. But throughout the book,Wilder includes scenes that underscores Laura’s changing and evolving self. Certainly the chapter “The Black Ponies,” illustrates Laura’s lingering attraction to childhood with her wild ride on Jean’s black pony. “Twice Laura fell off. Once the pony’s head hit her nose and made it bleed, but she never let go of the mane. Her hair came unbraided,and her throat grew hoarse from laughing and screeching,and her legs were scratched from running through the sharp grass and trying to leap onto her pony while it was running.” But earlier in this chapter, Laura and Lena face a sobering truth about themselves when they take Aunt Docia’s washing to the homesteaders wife, and they learn her 13 -year-old daughter had gotten married the previous day. “Laura looked at Lena and Lena looked at her. On the way back to camp they did not say anything for some time, then they both spoke at once. ‘She was only a little older than I am,’said Laura, and Lena said, ‘I’m a year older than she was.’ Then Lena tossed her curly black head. ‘She’s a silly. Now she can’t ever have any more good times.’ Laura said soberly, ‘No she can’t play anymore now.’ After a while Lena said she supposed Lizzie did not have to work any harder than before. ‘Anyway,now she’s doing her own work in her own house, and she’ll have babies.’ ‘Well,’Laura said, I’d like my own house and I like babies, and I wouldn’t mind the work, but I don’t want to be so responsible. I’d rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet.'” Both girls realized that childhood is slipping away,and that new responsibilities are had for them if they follow the conventional path. In many ways the wild ride on the black ponies is a rejection of convention, and a form of rebellion. And rebellion,of course, is an archetypal adolescent response to convention. At the end of the conversation about Lizzie and her teenage marriage, which I should point out was a somewhat daring topic for juvenile fiction in the late 1930s,and I think it’s even more so today, Laura performs another act of rebellion. Earlier in the scene,when the two girls drive out to the homesteaders claim shanty, Lena takes the reins because Pa had never let Laura drive his horses He said she was not strong enough to hold them if they ran away. But after Lara and Lena discussed Lizzie ‘s marriage Laura asks, “May I drive them now?” She wanted to forget about growing up, and in the process she defies Pa and enjoys every minute of it. “Laura braced her feet and hung onto the lines with all her might. She could feel that the ponies didn’t mean any harm. They were running because they wanted to run in the windy weather. They were going to do what they wanted to do. Laura hung onto them and yelled’Yi Yi! Yippy Yi Yi!'” And in this moment,she becomes her own person. Like the black ponies, Laura is doing what she wants to do. While she may sometimes continue to act like a child,she is a teenager,expressing herself in her own way and defying her parents expectations for her without regret. At other moments,however,in’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ Laura assumes more responsibility, evolving into the adult she will become. Facing down the Buffalo Wolf on Silver Lake,for example: “He was looking toward her. The wind stirred its fur, and the moonlight seem to run in and out of it.” Laura,in this scene,not only does exactly the right thing,protecting herself and Carrie, but she also faces down one of her own early childhood fears. Remember the wolves in the early novels’Little House in the Big Woods’and’Little House on the Prairie’? The Wolf was an image from Wilder’s childhood, and in the past Pa and Jack had protected Laura from its threat. Now she acts alone, and protects her little sister.

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