56 pages 1 hour read

Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in 1939, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake is a middle-grade historical fiction novel and the fifth installment of the classic Little House series. Following the perspective of 12-year-old Laura Ingalls, the novel continues the adventures of the Ingalls family as they settle in the Dakota Territory during the late 19th century. Wilder’s largely autobiographical fiction draws from her childhood memories of pioneer life. The book received the Newbery Honor Award and explores themes of family, adolescence, and change.

This study guide refers to the e-book edition released by HarperCollins in 2016.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of homicide, dated and racist language toward Indigenous Americans, and ableism.

Plot Summary

In 1879, 12-year-old Laura Ingalls lives in Plum Creek, Minnesota, with her parents and three sisters. When the novel begins, the Ingalls’ spirits are weighed down by financial troubles and a recent bout of scarlet fever. The illness causes Laura’s older sister, Mary, to have blindness. Laura’s aunt and uncle unexpectedly offer Pa a promising job in Dakota Territory, but he must leave his family behind in Minnesota for a few months to secure his new position. The same morning that Pa sets out in his covered wagon, Laura’s beloved bulldog dies. Without her father or loyal canine companion to protect her, she decides to be grown up and look after her three sisters. In September, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace take the train to Tracy, and Pa meets them at a hotel near the station. After a long day’s wagon ride, Laura and her family reach the railroad camp, where they will stay with her aunt and uncle and their two children.

On Laura’s exciting first day at a railroad camp, her cousin lets her drive a buggy for the first time and teaches her how to ride a pony. The following day, the Ingalls move on to the next camp, which is located at Silver Lake. During the long wagon ride between the camps, a man named Big Jerry watches over the Ingalls and stops a would-be bandit from robbing them. Laura, Mary, and Carrie explore the beautiful lakeshore and prairie near the shanty where they’re staying, but Ma reminds the family that they’re only living there until Pa can find them a homestead. After the Ingalls have been at Silver Lake for weeks, the camp goes on alert for horse thieves. Big Jerry is suspected of being in league with the thieves, but Pa talks to him and defuses the situation.

Ma dislikes the idea of her daughters being near the railroad workers. However, Laura is so curious about how the railroad is being built that Pa spends an afternoon showing her the teams of men leveling the prairie for the railroad tracks. Pa works for the railroad company as a storekeeper and distributes the laborers’ pay. Two weeks after the Ingalls arrive at the Silver Lake camp, the workers confront Pa because they object to being paid biweekly. Big Jerry redirects the workers’ ire and leads them to join an angry mob at a neighboring camp. In fall, the migrating birds stir up Laura’s wanderlust. Pa explains that they must find a homestead and settle down because he promised Ma the children would attend school. Moreover, Ma wants one of her children to become a teacher, and Laura’s parents expect her to fulfill her mother’s dream now that Mary has blindness. Although Laura has no desire to pursue a career in teaching, she resolves to obey her parents’ wishes.

As winter approaches, the camp’s workers, including Laura’s uncle and his family, disperse. The railroad’s surveyors allow the Ingalls to stay in their sturdy house by the lake in exchange for watching over the company’s equipment until the spring. Their nearest neighbors are 40 miles away, and buffalo wolves prowl around the stable at night. Despite these dangers, the family pleasantly whiles away the evenings singing and dancing together. One night, Laura and Carrie go gliding on the lake and are terrified to see a wolf on the opposite bank, but the animal doesn’t chase them. The next day, Pa follows the wolves’ tracks. Although he doesn’t find the animals, he does discover an ideal tract of land for a homestead.

On Christmas Eve, Mr. Boast, a former railroad worker and current homesteader, returns to Silver Lake with his wife, Ellie. The Ingalls invite the young couple to spend Christmas with them. On the merriest Christmas Day Laura can yet recall, Ma ensures that there are delectable meals and presents for everyone, including their unexpected guests. Over the following weeks, the Ingalls and Boasts spend many joyful days together, and Laura grows close to the merry-hearted Mrs. Boast. A minister passing through on his way to Huron tells the Ingalls that there is a college for people with blindness in Iowa, and Laura promises Mary that she will become a teacher to help pay for her sister’s education.

As spring approaches, the surveyors’ house becomes a makeshift inn for wagonloads of travelers passing through on their journey west. Laura helps Ma cook and clean for their guests. In March, Pa travels to a land office in Brookings and claims the family’s homestead. The town of De Smet springs up by Silver Lake, and in April, the Ingalls move out of the surveyors’ house and into a building Pa is constructing. Soon afterward, a claim jumper murders a man on his own homestead, prompting the Ingalls to move to their new land without delay.

The entire family is glad to reach their new permanent home, and Pa plays his fiddle and sings with his family under the stars. On the Ingalls’ first full day on the homestead, two-year-old Grace goes missing. Laura finds the toddler in an old buffalo wallow overgrown with violets. Pa continues to develop the homestead by digging a well, planting a windbreak of trees, and building a stable. He plans to plant a garden and a small field and to devote most of the 160 acres to raising hay and cattle. In the summer, the Ingalls are grateful to all be safely together in their new home.

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