Grass Stains on the Shores of Silver Lake

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Big girl as she was, 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. 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.
-chapter 29, "The Shanty on the Claim"

I love the photo of Laura Ingalls that I shared at the top of this post. She is 13 or 14 in that picture, living on the Dakota prairie with her family, posing for a photo in which she looks thoughtful, a bit gawky, and very much a teenager who might have looked back on this tintype and been embarrassed by the fact that she does not look her best self. (I think she looks fine, but I also know all too well how hard teenagers are on themselves when faced with photographic evidence.) She is serious and maybe a little moody. I'm guessing at all this, of course- I have no idea how she was feeling when this photo was taken, but after reading her novel about the years in which this was taken, I think I can understand just a bit.

In my humble but rather lengthy and wordy opinion, By the Shores of Silver Lake is the turning point for Laura's adolescence in the Little House books - the clear, dividing line between Childhood in the Big Woods, on the Prairie, and on Plum Creek, and the Adulthood where she survives the Long Winter, sees the building of the Town, and falls in love with Almanzo in the Happy Golden Years (followed abruptly by the First Four Years which are given no romantic modifier, and certainly not called happy or golden).

My dad read this book aloud to me when I was four, and I loved it. I read it on my own when I was seven, and I loved it. (And re-read it again many subsequent times throughout the following years.) Listening to this book again on CD, at the age of 23, brought me a rush of unexpected emotions. I don't think I fully appreciated, as a teenager, how well Laura as an author encapsulates the transition from childhood to young adult. When I was going through the same rough period of little-girl-turning-into-awkward-young-woman, realizing for the first time that grass stains on hard-earned clothes may not scrub out in the wash and that a piece of clothing has been ruined- and what that means for a family struggling to make ends meet- I took Laura's day-to-day worries as natural occurrences. There was nothing remarkable in reading about a character 130 years ago who lived her inner life in much the same way I did. That was how all 13-year-olds saw the world, wasn't it? Duh.

But the thing is, Laura Ingalls didn't write By the Shores of Silver Lake when she was 13, when the pressures and privileges of young adulthood were new and sharp and crowding up against her. She wrote it in her sixties, when the perspective of her teens was faded and faraway - and yet, somehow she still managed to evoke the sense of being 13 and clueless and curious and restless for a whole new generation of readers. I like to think that girls who read Silver Lake when it was first published in 1939 felt the same way about Laura that I did as a young girl, and that perhaps if they read it again in their twenties, they felt the same prickle of remembrance.

In many ways, I don't feel much older at 23-almost-24 than I did at 13-almost-14.  I have a hard time remembering some parts of my younger childhood - not events, so much, but the way I felt about things and my unique way of seeing the world as a four-, six-, eight-, or even ten-year-old.  (This feeling somewhat hampers my desire to write children's books someday. Perhaps in the future when I have my own children it will be easier to remember again.  But I digress.) As far as my teenage years, though, they seem as near to me and familiar as if I had just lived them. Which, I suppose, I just did, technically.  My teenage sensibilities are still there, hidden under a thin veneer of acting like an adult (well, most of the time). I am still self-conscious and quick to act or speak before thinking, anxious about things I can't change and sometimes unwilling to change the things I can.  And I still feel, most of the time, as if I'm just experiencing the very tip of the iceberg that is this world I live in; that I've only seen the barest little smidgen of it, and there's so much more yet to know.
"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.
-chapter 7, "The West Begins"
To borrow a term from the Anne books, this was one of those moments when I first read this book on my own that told me Laura was a kindred spirit, one of the race that knows Joseph.  And when I reread it as an adult, this was one of those moments when I realized Laura was growing up, shedding her childish outlook and donning a new, grown-up one. Children certainly have moments of startling observation, seeing the "end of the world" in a road that seems to break off short, but it is the transition to becoming a boring grown-up that lets us know, for sure, that the road really does go all the way to Silver Lake, even when we want to see a more magical view of the grassy land.

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"Run along home now, Flutterbudget," [said Pa.] "I've got work to do on the books. Now you know how a railroad grade's made, be sure to tell Mary all about it."
"Oh, I will, Pa!" Laura promised. "I'll see it out loud for her, every bit."
She did her best, but Mary only said, "I really don't know, Laura, why you'd rather watch those rough men working in the dirt than stay here in the nice clean shanty. I've finished another quilt patch while you've been idling."
But Laura was still seeing the movement of men and horses in such perfect time that she could almost sing the tune to which they moved.
-chapter 10, "The Wonderful Afternoon"

Admittedly, the Wonderful Afternoon was not terribly wonderful to me when I first read Silver Lake.  I may or may not have skipped it on a few reads, because it was "boring." ("Whenever you say 'may or may not' it always just means that you DID," said my best friend to me one time, in a fit of exasperation. She may or may not be right.) I can't deny that it wasn't terribly wonderful to me on this particular re-read, either.  But Laura's impression of the movement of men and horses in perfect time still stuck out to me anyway, and it came to mind when I read some C.S. Lewis recently -
"Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself.  And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level - in other words, not to discount perspective - would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance..."

(I interrupt this quote to say that I DID NOT doctor what Lewis said AT ALL, it just fit the whole thing about the road breaking off short, but not really, very perfectly, and amused me. A lot.)

"...But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own."
~Epilogue, An Experiment In Criticism

I hated to read the beginning of Silver Lake as a child, because I knew how sad it would be. Though at the time I didn't really understand the themes of the book and how Laura was growing up and leaving childhood behind - how could I? I was still firmly in its thrall myself - I still felt with her other heart when she had to say goodbye to the good old bulldog Jack.  I'm not a "dog person" and never have been, but doggone it if that part doesn't always make me tear up a bit.  Not just the fact that Jack dies, but that Laura, and the reader, realize that he is old, that his death cannot be prevented, that he has been loving and faithful all the way to the end, and that even his passing is (in a small way) protecting her as he always used to do: he goes in his sleep, peacefully, and she doesn't have to watch him struggle.

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Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up.
~chapter 2, "Grown Up

The coming-of-age story is quite possibly my favorite sub-genre in what they call "literary fiction", which is definitely my favorite genre.  The process of a human being going from a child to an adult, caterpillar to moth or butterfly, never stops being fascinating.  I think Silver Lake is all about that whole process for Laura - the beginning of that process, I should say, for it carries over into the next few books as well - even though perhaps she herself thought that she grew up in that one moment, realizing that Jack would not be coming back to her.  It is naive to think that you can become an adult in one moment, which is part of what reminds us that Laura is only thirteen; but on the other hand, it is a succinct, accurate summary of the way Laura does just about everything in her life.  When you must, then you do.  

Maybe that is what they call the pioneer spirit.

I was amused, as I wrote this post, to find another one already on the Interwebs exploring themes very similar to the ones I had outlined and noted - and, in fact, coming to the same conclusions that I had. At first, I hesitated to write mine, because I didn't want anyone to think I had copied from someone else. But if we both got the same message from the book, isn't that the point? Of course every work of fiction speaks to each person who reads it in a different way. (In the case of me and Don Quixote, for example, that book told me very decidedly to throw it across the room in frustration at how awful it was, and so I did.) But the gist of what the author is trying to convey is, hopefully, going to come across clearly to more than just one person, and I think that is the mark of Laura Ingalls Wilder's success as a writer. Not only did she encapsulate what it means to be a child for so many who read her stories and identified with her fictionalized self, but she made her point without having to beat the reader over the head with it. I felt pleased with myself at having gotten at a Theme and a Motive for this particular installment in the series (maybe it's the latent English teacher tendencies within me), but seeing that someone else picked up on the very same thing brought me down a peg. Perhaps I'm not as perceptive a reader as I thought I was, but if reading Silver Lake and then reading someone else's thoughts on it helped me to realize that, I guess that's a good thing too.

That, and the person who wrote the blog post above also happens to be one of my favorite childhood authors - like, guys, she wrote some of the DEAR AMERICA BOOKS - and, well... if we got the same impression from rereading one of the Little House books as adults, my childhood self and my current self are pretty excited about that.

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p.s. Kathleen Ernst, if any kind of link-related pingback happens to bring you to my blog, please just know that A Time For Courage was one of the best things I ever read in middle school (and I devoured almost every one of the Dear America books with a passion, so that is saying a lot), and Betrayal at Cross Creek and Whistler in the Dark were two of my favorite History Mysteries (yeah, I read every single book in that series, obsessively, too) when I was in fifth grade. And I didn't realize you wrote adult fiction too, so now I'm going to check out those books. Okay, done fangirling now.

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