By The Shores Of Silver Lake: Literary Overview (Part 4)


In the Spring Rush,Laura again assumes a more adult role:clearing the table, washing dishes,and helping put supper on the table for the dozens of men rushing into Dakota territory to file claims along the new railroad line. In reality,of course,Wilder had already done similar work at a much earlier age,when Charles and Caroline Ingalls had managed the Masters Hotel. And Laura had been hired as a companion to do light housekeeping chores in Burr Oak and Walnut Grove. But for the fictional Laura,this is a new experience,one that signals her maturity, independence,and initiation into young womanhood. In fact, it was at this point in Wilder’s real life that she began wearing long dresses and pinned up her hair, “because my long braids hanging got in my way and hindered the work. So there I was,a young lady with long dresses and hair done up.” Wilder was 12, going on 13. I’ll come back in a few minutes to a discussion of two more important themes in’By the Shores of Silver Lake’: concepts that relate to Laura’s deepening maturity,and the tension between the freedom of childhood and the responsibilities of becoming an adult. But first, let’s take a quick look at a few historical underpinnings in the novel,starting with the surveyor’s house. It is one of the few structures Wilder mentions in the ‘Little House’ books that still stands today, in De Smet, South Dakota. The building has been moved to its current location and restored, but it is the original structure, though visitors today might disagree with Laura’s first impressions of it. “It was a big house, a real house,with two stories and glass windows.” The structure does indeed have glass windows, and a loft, but it hardly qualifies as a big house. When Ma,during the Spring Rush,says that “There isn’t room for 15 on the floor of the surveyor’s house!” she’s absolutely right. In fact, visitors to the house now might wonder how the six members of the Ingalls family spent an entire winter in such a tiny space. As for the Rev.Edwin H Alden, he was indeed a historical figure, and arrived completely by coincidence at the surveyor’s house in the winter of 1880. Wilder wrote Lane in 1938 that he saw a lamp burning in the window, and that drew him to the house. According to newspaperman Aubrey Sherwood, who was a friend of the Ingalls family in De Smet, the Rev.Alden conducted the first church service in Kingsbury County at the Ingalls home in the surveyors house on February 29, 1880. But the actual gathering was probably larger than its depiction in ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ probably around 25 people attended. Robert and Ella Boast are historical figures too. He was about 30 in 1880 and his wife was 28. They settled in the town that would eventually become De Smet,South Dakota, and lived out their lives there. In this book, ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake,’Mr.Edwards returns,that”wildcat from Tennessee.” But as we’ve seen in part one, Mr.Edwards was a fictional character who sprang directly from Wilder ‘s imagination. As to the episode where Mr.Edwards returns in’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ Wilder wrote her friend Aubrey Sherwood, who was then editor of the De Smet newspaper: “As to the place where homesteads were filed, that chapter is fiction. Such things did happen in those days,and I placed it there to emphasize the rush for land. You understand how those things are done in writing.” The book is not a history,but a true story founded on historical fact. Which brings me to the great Dakota land boom, what Wilder calls the”Spring Rush.” It might appear that her depiction in the novel seems too dramatic to be real, but in fact it is historically accurate, and was directly related to the Chicago and Northwestern Railway’s expansion into Dakota territory from Western Minnesota between 1878 and 1887. In what is now South Dakota, the Chicago and Northwestern Railway plotted town sites between seven and ten miles apart.The rationale for this approach to town building? Farmers could drive to and from a railroad town in just a day. In 1880, one of the Rev. Alden’s associates told the American Home Missionary Society that”Scores,if not hundreds,of new towns are springing up and the whole country has been under a big boom. 137 new post offices have been established, the railroads have pushed in advance of the settlements. The activity has been with out parallel.” To give you an idea of how rapidly this part of Dakota territory grew during the period: Between 1870 and 1880, the non-Indian population in what is now South Dakota,grew from 12,000 to 80,000 people. By 1885 the population had surged to a quarter million. When I worked for the South Dakota Division of Tourism as a publicity writer back in the 1970s and early 1980s, I covered a surge of Centennial celebrations in those very small towns that had been created during the Dakota land boom, including De Smet. And that’s how I met the late Aubrey Sherwood,who had long retired as the editor of the’De Smet News,’but still had vivid memories of the Ingalls family and his friendship with Wilder herself. All of this this brings me back to two crucial and important themes in’By the Shores of Silver Lake.’ Let’s start with an established theme in Wilder’s’Little House’books: the West. In this novel,however,the West takes on a new and different role. For Wilder, as we discussed in a lecture from part one, Dakota territory was the real West. After all,she titles one critical chapter in this book ‘The West Begins.’ This passage reflects what the West meant to Wilder: “All morning, Pa drove steadily along the dim wagon track and nothing changed. The farther they went into the West, the smaller they seemed, and the less they seemed to be going anywhere. The wind blew the grass always with the same rippling,the horses feet and the wheels going over the grass made always the same sound, the jiggling of the board seat was always the same jiggling. Laura thought they might go on for ever,yet always be in the same changeless place that would not even know they were there.” As we’ve seen in Wilder’s previous’Little House’ books, the natural world is ambivalent to the human condition, not even knowing they were there. But this West, this new West Dakota territory is vast and seemingly endless. It’s a different frontier, even for experienced pioneers like the Ingalls family. Laura asks: “‘Pa, when you find the homestead, will it be like the one we had in Indian Territory?’ Pa thought before he answered. ‘No,’he said finally, ‘this is different country. I can’t tell you exactly how,but this prairie is different. It feels different.’ ‘That’s likely enough,’Ma said sensibly.’We’re West of Minnesota and north of Indian Territory,so naturally the flowers and grasses are not the same.’ But that was not what Pa and Laura meant. There was really almost no difference in the flowers and grasses. But there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still, and when you were still you could feel great stillness coming closer.” And although this West is vast and still, it’s filling up with people who hope to tame it. There’s a sense of sadness here,and loss,which both Laura and Pa feel but can’t quite express. Part of this,of course,is bound up with the railroad,which Wilder views with skepticism. Railroads are a necessary evil, a corrupt institution on which pioneers,in this vast landscape,have to rely. When Uncle Hi high helps himself to railroad company supplies, Pa is sympathetic. “‘Oh come, Caroline, it wasn’t stealing. Hi hasn’t got away with anymore than is due him for his work here, and at the camp on the Sioux. The company cheated him there, and he’s got even here. That’s all there is to it.'” Yet the railroads also represent progress and change. “She knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times they were living in. There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world, Pa said.” Think about the chapter where Pa takes Laura to see the work on the railroad. Wilder titles this chapter ‘Wonderful Afternoon.’ As we’ve already seen, she felt so strongly about this scene,that Wilder created an entirely fictional scenario so that readers could see the railroad’s construction directly through Laura’s eyes. She wrote Lane: “I stretch the point when I had Laura go with Pa to see the work. I never did. I did it to have Laura see it firsthand and get her reaction.” “There was no railroad there now,but someday the long steel tracks would lie level on the fills and through the cuts,and trains would come roaring,steaming and smoking with speed. The tracks and trains were not there now but Laura could see them, almost as if they were.” Yet Laura mourns these changes even as she embraces them, and for her there’s a part of this new West that will forever remain untamed and free. This passage,also from the chapter ‘The West Begins’ illustrates this point perfectly. “He looked like an Indian. He was tall and big, but not one bit fat, and his thin face was brown. His shirt was flaming red, his straight black hair swung against his flat,high-boned cheek as he rode,for he wore no hat, and his snow white horse wore no saddle or bridle. The horse was free, he could go where he wanted to go,and he wanted to go with Big Jerry, wherever Big Jerry wanted to ride. The horse and the man moved together as if they were one animal. They were beside the wagon only a moment, then away they went in the smoothest,prettiest run,down into a hollow and up and away,straight into the blazing round sun on the far edge of the West. The flaming red shirt and the white horse vanished in the blazing golden light. Laura let out her breath. ‘Oh Mary, the snow white horse and the tall brown man with such a black head and a bright red shirt, the brown prairie all around.They rode straight into the sun as if it was going down. They’ll go on in the sun around the world.’ Mary thought a moment,then she said ‘Laura, you know he couldn’t ride into the sun. He’s just riding along on the ground like anybody.’ But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true too. Somehow that moment,when the beautiful free pony and the wild man rode into the sun, would last forever.” This is for Wilder,and by extension Laura, the real West: an American Indian riding a wild white horse forever west into the sun. And yet this is a dying image,one that she and her family will displace. Although this is Laura’s introduction to the West, it is simultaneously her farewell to it, just as this book marks the beginning of Laura’s farewell to childhood. The West and Laura are on parallel paths. Will civilization tame the West? Will approaching womanhood tame Laura Ingalls? Notice here too,in this passage,that for the first time in the’Little House’ series,we see Laura as a storyteller, elevating everyday reality to a larger,more universal truth, the truth of a storyteller. Which brings me to my last point. ‘Silver Lake’ gives readers the first hint about Laura’s artistic interests and her ultimate occupation.Remember that YA novels often deal with this very theme. Notice too that Laura’s emerging gift as a storyteller is bound up with Mary’s blindness, which has forced a new occupation onto Laura, to be Mary’s’eyes.’ Pa had said that she must be eyes for Mary, and Laura sees things in ways that are unique, descriptive,precise, and yet somehow universal. Let’s look at another lengthy passage,which goes beyond a simple description to convey the vast mystery of storytelling, which is just as vast and rich as the prairie itself. “‘The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short, and that’s the end of it,’ said Laura. ‘It can’t be,’ Mary objected. ‘The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.’ ‘I know it does,’ Laura answered. ‘Well,then I don’t think you ought to say things like that,’Mary told her gently. ‘We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.’ ‘I was saying what I meant,’Laura protested. But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things, and so many ways of saying them.” By the end of this novel Laura is clearly no longer a child, she’s a young woman. Like the West,her future remains unknowable, but readers understand that Laura and her family have already been changed by their experiences on this new frontier, and that more transformations are coming: for the West, and for Laura herself. “The first stars were pricking through the pale sky. A few lights twinkled yellow in the little town. The whole great plain of the Earth was shadowy. There was hardly a wind,but the air moved and whispered to itself in the grasses. Laura almost knew what it said. Lonely and wild and eternal were land and water and sky and the air blowing.
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‘The buffalo are gone,’Laura thought, we’re homesteaders.’

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