I continue to share my love of historical fiction with my seven year old daughter. We recently finished the fifth book in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake.
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The Continuing Story...
It has been over three years since the previous book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek ended. In that time, a lot has happened to the Ingalls family. There is the joy of a new baby; Grace has become the fourth Ingalls daughter. There is also tragedy; Scarlet Fever came to the small house and has left oldest daughter Mary blind and the family in debt with doctor's bills. When Laura's father is offered a job on the railroad he sells the farm and heads west to Dakota Territory, where the family settles near Silver Lake in what will soon be the town of DeSmet.
So far, By the Shores of Silver Lake, has been our favorite book in the series. There seems to be a little more action is this particular book than others in the series. The Ingalls women join Pa in Dakota Territory by taking a train and then while waiting for him to come and pick them up they eat in a restaurant. While those activities are commonplace today they were exciting to this poor pioneering family. You can feel the excitement with how Laura describes the experience to Mary, for Laura has promised Pa to be Mary's eyes. This gives a lot of the book a lot of detailed descriptions of scenery and experiences.
I noticed a difference in the writing as well. At 13 Laura is no longer a little girl with simple youthful concerns. Now we see a more thoughtful young woman concerned about having to become a teacher to please Ma, trying to save money to send Mary to a college for the blind, feeling responsibility to care for her sisters and learning to become the refined young woman her mother expects her to be. Yet, like her Pa, she feels the urge to travel further west, away from such a settled place where people seem to crowd her in.
My daughter struggled with Mary's blindness. She couldn't understand why Mary had to sit in a rocking chair and entertain baby Grace instead of doing things. The fact that Mary's blindness prevented her from going to school, or doing anything other than needlework, seemed absurd to Seven. Fortunately Mary seems less like an invalid in the next book, The Long Winter, where Mary studies with Laura and helps with chores around the house. Mary is portrayed as very excepting of her blindness but I have to believe it was quite an adjustment for the whole family and perhaps it was easier for Laura to remember this as a quiet, contemplative time for her older sister.
There are times when the detailed descriptions simply overwhelm the reader. When Laura goes with Pa to see how the railroad workers level the land, she spends pages describing in great detail the actions of the work teams. This is certainly a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. Neither my daughter nor I could make any sense of the scene as described and I doubt anyone could. Fortunately most of the time Laura's descriptions are spot on, providing enough detail to picture her world without crushing the reader under the weight of her narrative
The Missing Years
Seven was troubled by the gap between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shore of Silver Lake. We had left Laura a young girl and joined her the next night as a teenager. My daughter was convinced that I had skipped a book. I explained that the Ingalls family had gone through some difficult times in those three years and as an adult Laura probably did not want to relive them by writing about them.
During those years crops continued to fail, the family moved to Iowa for a time and ran a hotel and then returned to Minnesota where Laura's only brother was born and died at the age of 9 months. These were undoubtedly sad and troubled years for the Ingalls family and filled with events she probably did not care to share with her readers.
Once my daughter was able to get past the gap in the timeline, we both enjoyed the story. There is a lot of detailed description in the novel, and occasionally it is overkill. Overall By the Shore of Silver Lake was a good book, full of new adventures for Laura and her readers. A good book for children 7-12, although it is likely to appeal more to girls than boys. I