Review x 2: By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mar 14, 2014
While I am grateful to be blessed with so much, reading these two books made me appreciate, and long for, the peace and contentment that comes by keeping your life simple and uncluttered.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls and her family move to Dakota Territory. Pa works as a bookkeeper while the railroad is being built, and once the railroad has moved farther west, he files on a claim and the town of De Smet is settled.
The Long Winter begins in the early fall when the weather in De Smet, South Dakota is warm and beautiful. However, an early blizzard in October is a warning of what is to come. Laura and her family wisely move out of their claim shanty and into the sturdy walls of the store Pa built in town. The winter is endless: one blizzard after another. By early spring, the family is close to starvation. Thankfully, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives to bring in wheat from a farm twenty miles away.
I decided to combine the reviews of these two books since they are both set in the same place and involve the same characters and spend a lot of time describing the harsh winters in Dakota Territory. After I finished By the Shores of Silver Lake, I immediately picked up The Long Winter because there was no way I was going to wait until warm and sunny June to read a book about dark and cold.
As it happened, we have had such a mild winter here in Utah (we've seen more rain in the last two months than snow) that I felt a little guilty while reading about the Ingalls family being shut up in their house for six months, filling their days with twisting hay into sticks and grinding wheat into flour in order to stay on top of survival.
Ma's attitude during the long months is truly remarkable. Every morning, she wakes up cheerfully and calls the girls to work. Even on days when the house is shaking because of the blizzard whipping around it, she encourages Laura to make her bed and clean up after breakfast so that they won't have to worry about those things later in the day. I'm afraid if there was a blizzard raging outside, I would probably stay curled up in bed for most of the morning. But I honestly think it was their consistent routine that saved them mentally and physically.
There are only a couple of moments where Ma cracks, and it is just enough to show what tremendous stress she is under and that it is taking all of her willpower to keep it all together. Even as they are on the brink of starving and Laura says, "I am so tired of brown bread with nothing on it," Ma is quick to say, "Don't complain, Laura. Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it." I know these books are considered historical fiction rather than strictly autobiographical because Laura did take some artistic liberties while writing them, but I have to believe that her portrayal of Ma as a stalwart presence is representative of the way she truly was.
Laura's writing is stunning in its simple, but vivid, descriptions. I was especially impressed with The Long Winter because the story is about an endless blizzard, and how do you make an endless blizzard interesting? There is a fair amount of repetition to be sure (every time a new blizzard strikes, she describes the nails as being white with frost and talks about the neighbors' lights that surely must be burning but that they can't see), but I found this repetition to be a powerful literary tool; it captured the relentless, hopeless, monotonous feel of winter. Also, it is amazing how subtly she changes the tone of the story so that the whole situation gradually feels more dire and desperate.
I have been enjoying this series so much as an adult. As I've mentioned before, my mom read Little House in the Big Woods to me when I was a little girl, and then we never read any more of the books. We were recently talking about how strange it was that we never read more of them since she read so much to my siblings and me. But looking back, I think I know the reason why: Little House in the Big Woods is so boring. You can hate me for saying it, but I'll make no apology. That book is scaring people away from the series. Even as an adult, I had a hard time listening to the audio (although I see, looking back at my brief thoughts from 2009 on Goodreads, that I said I loved it . . . I think I had just set my expectations very low, and also, I had no idea how much better subsequent books would be).
I can certainly appreciate that Little House in the Big Woods is about a four-year-old girl, and so of course the descriptions are going to be more basic and stark than when she is thirteen and describing the scenes for her blind sister, Mary. I can even admire that Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about her experiences so many years later, is able to change the writing style to reflect the various ages of Laura as she grows up. But the fact remains, Little House in the Big Woods is boring.
I'm telling you all of this not to bash Little House in the Big Woods but just to encourage any hesitant Little House on the Prairie readers to maybe begin with a different book (Farmer Boy would be an excellent choice). I'm generally a stickler for reading a series in order, but in this case, I think it really hurts the reader's chance of wanting to read any more in the series.