I have tried not to insert my voice into these very special guest reviews, but, four reviews into this project and I have noticed a theme that makes me very excited. Tom Angleberger, Jonathan Auxier and Lesley L.L. Blume have all championed books in ways that buck the critics or challenge readers to take a new look, open their minds or push the envelope of traditional ideas when choosing a book. Annie Barrows continues this theme with a review that takes an honest look at one in a series of a classic work of children's literature while also offering some great insight into what makes a readable kid's book. Thanks to my guest reviewers! Enjoy!
By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Because I am a horribly contrary person (just ask my editors), I am not reviewing a book I loved as a child. I’m reviewing a book I didn’t love: By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fourth book in the classic and magnificent Little House series—fourth by my reckoning anyway; I don’t count Farmer Boy (It’s not about Laura! It’s about a BOY!). I loved the Little House books as a kid and I love them now. In fact, I think that they are, as a whole, the Great American Novel, the ultimate expression of the celebrated idea that an American’s truest and best life is spent in the search for the freedom to become completely self-defined. It pleases me hugely that the Little House books chronicle the achievement of this goal, that the author and the protagonist are female, and that our hero manages to define herself without murdering anyone. Take that, Cormac McCarthy!
Have I digressed? Yes, I believe I have. As much as I adored the series, I did not love—or even like—By the Shores of Silver Lake. As a kid, I was much given to rereading, and it’s likely that I read all the other Little House books over a hundred times. By the Shores of Silver Lake I read twice. It was no good.
That’s what interests me now. Why was it no good? What about the rest of the series was betrayed by Silver Lake?
I used to think that the problem was the opening of the book. The curtain rises on bummer-land: The family has had scarlet fever. They’re broke. Mary is blind. The dog dies. And, very disconcertingly, four years have passed since the end of the previous book. Laura—our hero—is now twelve. Clearly, the elided years were not good ones.
However, these disasters are recounted very swiftly, in two chapters, and by page 15, the Ingalls family is on the train, going west. Things are looking up and a new life beckons at the railroad camp where Pa has become the paymaster. Much of the book narrates Laura’s experience during the building of the railroad and then the building of the town around it.
This, I think, is where the problem lies. All the other books (with the arguable exception of the last, These Happy Golden Years) show us a world built by individuals. Pa chops down a tree to build Ma’s rocking chair. He shoots a deer to eat for dinner. Ma makes cheese, dresses, dolls, and maple syrup. Everything that happens is the result of unmediated action by our characters. There’s no incomprehensible, intangible middleman; there are no parts that have to be obtained before you can make what you want; there is no information that’s missing. You want it; you make it; it’s done. This is pre-industrial life, and it is immensely satisfying to children. It makes sense. It’s the world configured in a way that a kid can comprehend and, what’s more, succeed in.
By the Shores of Silver Lake is a different place altogether. Pa is an employee, not a free man, and their house is built with bought lumber. Trains figure heavily in this tale—gone is the covered wagon that make a getaway whenever the whim struck. To ride a train, you have to know the schedule and then you have to pay actual money. Both of these are grownup mysteries; children don’t keep schedules and they don’t have money, and so the story recedes from their grasp. The world depicted is impossible to attain. We are distanced again when the Ingallses arrive at Pa’s railroad camp, where the men are grading the track. The making of a railroad is technology, it proceeds in stages, it demands expertise and team effort. One human cannot make any difference to its construction. It doesn’t matter what the Ingalls family values, what they’re like and what they can do. They are cogs in a larger system.
We hate that. Kids, especially, hate that. As kids are often cogs in some grownup’s system, it’s no pleasure to read about cog-ship.The best thing about By the Shores of Silver Lake (aside from the cool scene with the wolf) is that it makes clear the glory of the other books in the series. From the discontents of Silver Lake, the reader emerges with a sigh of relief to The Long Winter—my personal favorite of the series—in which the Ingalls family soldiers through the world’s worst-ever winter without furnaces, shops, crops, Polartec, neighbors, or even coffee. They twist hay to survive, twist it with their own hands. Whew! We’re back in a place where effort is directly related to outcome! And, freezing or not, this is a much more congenial place for a kid to be.
An abridged biography of Annie Barrows:
Books by Annie Barrows:
I was born in San Diego, California, in a year with a six in it. Also a two. You figure it out.
There was a ghost in my aunt’s house.
After I learned how to ride a bicycle, I went to the children’s library at least twice a week. The librarian was Mrs. Marian. I loved her.
Girls couldn’t wear pants to school until I was in fourth grade. On the very first day that we were allowed, I wore a turquoise blue pantsuit. Jimmy Basore pushed me down on the playground, and I got a rip in the knee of my pants.
After I graduated from UC Berkeley, I became an editor. I edited (not all at once) art criticism, textbooks for high-school students, a fiction and poetry magazine, short stories, and then, finally, books. After I had edited a couple hundred books, I decided that I could probably write one myself. So I went to writing school (that was a lot of fun) and I wrote a bunch of books for grown-ups. If you’re interested, and I don’t see why you should be, there’s a list of them here somewhere.
I also got married and had two daughters, Clio and Esme. When Clio was little, she was the kind of person who wanted to hear the books she liked at least fourteen times in a row. Luckily, I am the kind of person who likes to read books fourteen times in a row. We spent a lot of time reading. While I was reading all those kids’ books (and again, a few years later when I was reading them to Esme), I paid a lot of attention to how they were made and what made some terrific and some crummy. I remembered the books I loved when I was young and I remembered how important they were to me. And I thought: I want to write children’s books.
Books by Annie Barrows:
(the sequel, Magic in the Mix, is due out this fall!!!)
ivy + bean
(you can read my review of Book 1 here!)