By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Front dustjacket, first edition
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrator Helen Sewell and
Mildred Boyle
Garth Williams (1953)[1]
Country United States
Series Little House
Genre Children's novel
Family saga
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
October 20, 1939[2]
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 260;[3] 290 pp.[1]
OCLC 6932095
LC Class PZ7.W6461 By[3]
Preceded by On the Banks of Plum Creek
Followed by The Long Winter

By the Shores of Silver Lake is an autobiographical children's novel written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and published in 1939, the fifth of nine books in her Little House series. The story spans just over one year, beginning when Laura is 12 years old and the family moves from Plum Creek, Minnesota to what will become De Smet, South Dakota.

Though Wilder began writing the books as autobiographical recollections, they are considered historical fiction. The enduring popularity of the Little House books has inspired additional book series encompassing more generations of Wilder's family as well as a long-running television series in the early 1970s that is still in syndication and available on DVD.

Silver Lake was one runner-up for the Newbery Medal in 1940, as all the fourth to eighth Little House books were from 1938 to 1943. In retrospect the five novels are called Newbery Honor Books.[4]


By the Shores of Silver Lake is based on Laura's late childhood spent near De Smet, South Dakota, beginning in 1879. Because her sister Mary was recently blinded due to an illness, Pa asks Laura to "be Mary’s eyes" by describing what she sees, and Laura becomes more patient and mature through this service. The book also introduces Laura's youngest sister Grace Pearl.

The story begins in Plum Creek, shortly after the family has recovered from the scarlet fever which caused Mary to become blind. Aunt Docia comes to visit, and suggests that Pa works as the bookkeeper in Uncle Henry’s railroad camp for fifty dollars a month. Since Mary is too weak to travel, Pa goes ahead with the wagon and team, and the rest of the family follows later by train. The morning Pa is to leave, their beloved old bulldog Jack dies in his sleep, saddening Laura greatly. (The dog upon whom Jack was based was no longer with the family at that point, but the author inserted his death here to serve as a transition between her childhood and her adolescence.)

Several months later, the family travels to Dakota Territory by train. This is the family's first train trip and they are excited by the novelty of this newfangled mode of transportation, which can cover in a few hours the distance a horse and wagon would travel in a day. Pa comes for them in town, and the next day they leave for the railroad camp. Laura and her cousin, Lena, play together when they are done with their chores, which range from collecting laundry washed by a neighbor to milking cows; Laura rides a horse for the first time when Lena allows her the use of her pony. As winter approaches, the railroad workers take down the buildings in the camp and return east. As the family has nowhere to stay with the demolition of the camp, they plan to return east, but the surveyors, who had planned to stay for the winter, are called back east and ask the Ingalls to stay in their house in exchange for keeping watch over their surveying equipment.

Laura is excited to move into a beautiful house well stocked with provisions. The newly married Mr. and Mrs. Boast arrive in the middle of a snowstorm. They stay past Christmas, and at New Year's the Ingalls visit the Boasts' small home for dinner. To pass time, Mrs. Boast shares her collection of newspapers with Laura and shows the Ingalls family how to make a what-not.[5] Later, Reverend Alden unexpectedly visits, and after learning Mary is blind, informs Ma that there is a college for the blind in Iowa. Laura resolves that she will eventually teach school and help send Mary to college.

During a clear night that winter, Laura and Carrie go for a moonlight walk on the lake and encounter a wolf. When Pa goes out the next day to hunt the wolf, he discovers the perfect section of land for their homestead claim. He plans to file a claim at the land office in Brookings as soon as the weather improves. However, his departure is delayed by a rush of men moving west who stop at the surveyors' house on the way to their own claims. The money earned from boarding these men is later used for Mary's college education. After Pa's return from Brookings, he builds a store building in town so the family can move when the surveyors return. The book ends as the Ingalls family settles into the snug claim shanty on their new land.

Historical background

To encourage settlement of the mid-west part of the United States, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. This act divided unsettled land into sections, and heads of households could file a claim for very little money. A section was 1-square-mile (2.6 km2), and a claim was ¼ of a section (160 acres). 36 sections made a township. A section was identified by three numbers, for example NW quarter of Section 18, Township 109, Range 38. By paying $10.00 plus other filing fees, a man could get 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land for his use if he could live on it for 5 years and not give up to go back east. The Ingalls staked one claim near Plum Creek. In the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls filed a homestead claim south of De Smet for the NE quarter of Section 3, Township 110, Range 56.[6]

A few details in By the Shores of Silver Lake differ from accounts in more autobiographical sources. For example, it seems that Laura never actually visited the railroad grade, but in the book she went to the grade with her father.[7] Wilder also wrote that the surveyors left food in the house when they moved in and let the Ingalls have it. However, other sources are contradictory and it is unclear whether Pa had to buy the supplies for winter.[8]


Virginia Kirkus had handled Ingalls Wilder's debut novel Little House in the Big Woods for Harper & Brothers as its children's book editor from 1926 to 1932. In Kirkus Reviews, her semimonthly bulletin from 1933, she awarded By the Shores of Silver Lake a starred review (as she did its two predecessors and one successor, books 3 to 6 and no others). She assessed it frankly as the bookshop's advisor: "One always hesitates as to whether these stories of Laura Wilder's childhood belong with fiction or non-fiction, so place this where you have found the others sell best. ... A splendidly written contribution to factual frontier material, of special interest to the Middle Western market."[2]

By the Shores of Silver Lake was the second of five Newbery Medal runners-up for Ingalls Wilder, books 4 to 8 in the series.[4]

Modern influence

The Surveyors' House is a Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site in De Smet, South Dakota

Today, De Smet, South Dakota, attracts many fans with its historic sites from the books By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years (novel). From 1879 to 1894 the Ingalls family lived in De Smet. The family homestead, a house in town built by Charles Ingalls, the Brewster School where Laura taught, and the surveyors' house the family lived in between 1879 and 1880 are open to visitors.

In addition to the Little House books, four series of books expand the Little House series to include five generations of Laura Ingalls Wilder's family. The success of the Little House series has produced many related books including two series ("Little House Chapter Books" and "My First Little House Books") that present the original stories in condensed and simplified form for younger readers. Additional series have been written to tell the stories of Laura’s mother, “The Caroline Years,” her grandmother, "The Charlotte Years," her great-grandmother, “The Martha Years,” and her daughter, “The Rose Years.” There are also Little House-themed craft, music, and cookbooks.

The Little House on the Prairie television series was loosely based on the Little House books.


  1. 1 2 "By the Shores of Silver Lake"; Newly illustrated, uniform ed. LC Online Catalog. Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  2. 1 2 "By the Shores of Silver Lake" (starred review). Kirkus Reviews. October 1, 1939. Retrieved 2015-10-02. Online the review header shows a recent front cover, gives "volume 4" and "illustrated by Garth Williams".
  3. 1 2 "By the Shores of Silver Lake" (first edition). Library of Congress Online Catalog ( Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  4. 1 2 "Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922–Present". Association for Library Service to Children. American Library Association ( Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  5. Ingalls Wilder, Laura (1939). By The Shores of Silver Lake (1979 rep). Harper Trophy. pp. 208–211. ISBN 978-0-06-440005-3.
  6. Wade, Homesteading on the Plains, pp.11-16
  7. Anderson, A Little House Reader p. 19
  8. Anderson, A Little House Reader, p. 21, indicates that Pa purchased the food; Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p.49, indicates that the food was given in exchange for caring for the property.


External links

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