Often when I read a well-written book a subsequent time, I see things that I didn’t before, or at least that I didn’t remember from before. (I think the same is true of well-made movies.) This is especially the case when I’m looking for something in particular. I believe that this is the sixth time I’ve read the Little House books. My wife Paula first got me to read them when we were first married in the early 1990s. I read them again when I was in graduate school at Duquesne University. I think that Paula and I read them to our children twice. Then I read them again ahead of two talks about Wilder’s political views I gave at Grove City College in 2009 and at Trinity Christian College in 2011. However, when I read By the Shores of Silver Lake yesterday, I saw something that I didn’t remember at all: Laura’s description of a religious experience.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Silver Lake begins two years after On the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura is 13; Mary is 15 and blind. The family decides to move west so Pa can take a job with the railroad and then find a homestead for the family in Dakota Territory. The book describes their time in two railroad camps, a winter in the isolated surveyor’s house (which you can still visit in De Smet, SD), and their first days on the homestead.
I was beginning to think that there wasn’t going to be much mention of Christianity or the church. Wilder states multiple times that the family had moved beyond the line of civilization. For more than two thirds of the book there are only brief mentions of what might be called religious ideas. In chapter 2 the Ingalls family’s beloved dog Jack dies and Pa tells Laura that “He has gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.” (12) In Chapter 4, a railroad worker sings worldly words to the tune of Ma’s favorite hymn, “There is a green hill far away”: “There is a boarding house far away…” (21) Ma is scandalized. In chapter 19, “Christmas Eve,” the family reminisces about other Christmases they had together, including the one described in Plum Creek with the Sunday School Christmas Tree.
Then I reached chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way.” The family is singing hymns one Sunday Evening when they are answered by voices outside the surveyor’s house. It’s their old pastor from Minnesota, Reverend Alden, along with a young home missionary and two homesteaders. The company is on their way to a new town named Huron to see about starting a church there. All stay for the night with the Ingalls family. Laura is overjoyed to see Rev. Alden. In reference to Mary’s blindness, Pa notes that while it is hard to be “resigned to God’s will,” (126) he is glad that none of his children had died. (This is especially poignant for those of us who know that the historical Ingalls family did lose a child in infancy – their only son.) Rev. Alden responds that Mary is “a rare soul, and a lesson to all of us,” and furthermore, “whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.” (127)
More importantly to the plot development in the book, Rev. Alden tells the family that there is a college for the blind in Iowa that Mary could attend. Everyone is excited, although they have no idea how they might be able to pay. Laura is not sure what to think. Earlier in the book we are told that Ma and Pa had told her that they hoped one of their daughters might teach school. Laura does not want to teach school, and she is torn between duty and desire.
That night they have a prayer meeting, and while Rev. Alden is praying Laura has what only can be described as a religious experience:
They all knelt down by their chairs, and Reverend Alden asked God, Who knew their hearts and their secret thoughts, to look down on them there, and to forgive their sins and help them to do right. A quietness was in the room while he spoke. Laura felt as if she were hot, dry, dusty grass parching in a drought, and the quietness was a cool and gentle rain falling on her. It truly was a refreshment. Everything was simple now that she felt so cool and strong, and she would be glad to work hard and go without anything she wanted herself, so that Mary could go to college. (127-8)
Later that night, she promises Mary that she will “study hard, so I can teach school and help” her go to college. (128) Some Christians, like myself, can think back to experiences such as this that have happened while praying. Laura’s description is lyrical and matter-of-fact at the same time. This account is also the first time that forgiveness is mentioned as part of the Christian message. In general, depictions of Christianity and the church in the first four books have to do with right behavior, including Sunday observance, doing the right thing in all situations, and loving one’s neighbor. (While these are important Christian virtues, the central message of the gospel concerns the free offer of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.) The next day they have a preaching service since the preacher is there with them, even though it is Monday. All are excited to have celebrated the first church service in the new town of De Smet. Rev. Alden promises to come back to start a church there the next year.
There is no edge to any of the descriptions of Christian practice here that would be similar to what I described in my post on Plum Creek. There is a little comic relief, however: Ma is a little concerned about the ability of the younger pastor to cook for himself, worrying that he might “ruin his heath.” “‘He’s Scotch,’ said Pa, as if that meant that he would be all right.” (130) I’ve written this down in my notes about Wilder’s depictions of ethnic diversity in the books, though I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.
Two other miscellaneous comments: God, Christianity, and the church are not mentioned in the rest of the book. Jesus Christ has yet to be mentioned in the series.
As always, I welcome comments.
(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)
P. S. I may not be able to post next week. The first paper in my Western Civilization courses was due today, so I have 66 papers to grade by next Friday. We will see how they go.