Monday, June 22, 2015

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1939)

The most interesting character  in By the Shores of Silver Lake  (besides, of course, Laura herself) is Laura’s cousin Lena.  Lena is no Nellie Olson, but in some ways she’s lot more interesting.  She’s a wild child.  She drives the black ponies with wild abandonment across the prairie, a pretty sure indication she’s “fast.”  She knows bad songs that Laura heartily joins in (and Laura knows they are bad!).    It’s the lure of the older, bad girl; Laura is just shy of 13, and Lena is fascinating in ways that her family isn’t.  Silver Lake is about Laura leaving childhood behind and becoming a teenager (and hence a woman).  Jack dies.  Stockings aren’t hung up at Christmas (poor Carrie and Grace though).   And there is this heartbreaking scene  when Laura and Lena go to pick up the washing that Aunt Docia had sent out from the homesteading woman, who apologizes for the way she looks that day – her 13 year old daughter had been married the day before.  This leaves Laura and Lena discomforted.  Lena finally cries out:  “I don’t want to settle down… I’m not ever going to get married, or if I do, I’m to marry a railroader and keep on moving west as long as I live.”   Lena represents another kind of growing up; a sexualized kind, a stronger-minded kind too.  Railroad men – I  would hazard a guess that men in general – are of high interest to Lena; later on she tries to cajole Laura into going to see the railroad men working on the railroad.  (Unlike me, Ma isn’t a fan of Lena:  “Lena is a good, capable girl, but she is boisterous, and Docia has not curbed her as much as she ought.”  Ma, always curbing). 

Like everything in Wilder world, the fictional characters are distorted in the mirror of reality.  It sounds like real Lena had a very tough life.  Her mother was Docia Ingalls, Pa’s sister, the beautiful Aunt Docia from Little House in the Big Woods; Uncle Hi is actually her stepfather.  Her real father was August Waldvogel, who was (wrongly?) imprisoned after shooting a man who he believed as trying to rob him.  Docia divorced August Waldvogel and married Hiram Forbes.   According to some of the stuff I’ve read online, Hiram Forbes was an alcoholic ( and a thief:  I don’t care what Pa said about the railroad owing Hi – he still embezzled all that stuff).  An article about Gene Waldvogel (Cousin Jean) from the "find a grave" website had this to say about the family:  “Mother and stepfather attempted to abandon young Gene and his older sister Lena at orphanages and poorhouses at least twice, in 1874 and in 1877, so they could have sole use of the children's child support money from their biological father. The family drifted from place to place for years, mostly following railroad work for Hi.”  Not a pretty life.  Docia must have been sort of a wild girl herself, and certainly wasn’t a very good mother; it’s no wonder Lena was wild. 

The story of Docia Ingalls Waldvogel Forbes is fascinating.  You can find it here: , by her granddaughter Lola Flack (Lena’s daughter).  She writes:  “Grandma was a thin, bent little woman who never smiled.”  

Hard lives all.

Lola writes of her own mother, Lena:  “My mother, Lena, had somehow acquired an education sufficient to pass examinations for a teaching certificate. She taught school near Homer, Nebraska, where she met my father, a young farmer who also taught school after harvest was over for three months in the wintertime. They married and bought a farm near Dakota City, Nebraska, where they lived out their lives.”  So Lena never did marry her railroader, but it sounds like she had a happy life all the same.  Happier than her own mother’s.  And maybe happier than that of  Laura Ingalls Wilder herself.

Lola again:  “Hiram tried to whip Lena. She said she'd kill him if he tried.”   This when Lena was about 10 years old.

Edit: August Eugene 'Gene' Waldvogel (1868 - 1945) - Find A Grave Memorial

By the Shores of Silver Lake (Little House, #5)By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some things about Wilder's twelve year old Laura Ingalls that could easily place her in the 21st century.  She perfectly captures the allure of a older teen girl (the fast and wild cousin Lena), the insufferable trials of a having an older sister (and this one is blind on top of it), petty rebellion against mother, and always feeling cooped up and bored, wanting to explore the world and be away from family and familiar. This is the book in the series that leaves childhood behind, when Laura blossoms into womanhood.  The entire series has universality are its core; hence its longevity and popularity.  

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read some of these things you have written. Lola Flack is my great Aunite and Lena is my great grandmother. My mother never mentioned anything about Lena, her grandmother. I wonder what happens to Docia's first husband when he was released from prison. Did Lena ever see him again? I don't have the answer.


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