Payday on the Prairie

By the Shores of Silver Lake – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (first published 1939)


In the fifth volume of the Little House series, Laura learns more about the potential dangers lurking as she and her family continue their frequent moves in search of a home (see earlier essays here and here and here and here). They have left the relative calm of Plum Creek, moving to the Dakotas.  Mary has become blind as a result of scarlet fever. There is a new baby, Grace.  Both Mary’s disability and the appearance of a new child are described only in retrospect.  The book ends with a murder, forcing the family to hastily leave their temporary home in town and set up house in a small shanty on the homestead that Pa has only recently claimed.  Little Grace runs off, causing panic in the family, until Laura finds her in a buffalo wallow, or, as Laura prefers to think of it, a fairy ring.  Pa explains to her that the buffalo used to “paw up the ground and wallow in the dust,” before they were exploited to the point of extinction. In fact, earlier in the book, the desolation of the land is compared to the loss of these animals, long an essential part of the Native American economy and culture: “Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country.  They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.”


Pa isn’t working the land anymore. Instead, he has temporarily taken a clerical job on the expanding western railroad.  His duties include keeping records and paying the workers their due. Disputes over pay were common, as the men could hardly afford any delays in their compensation.  “As Pa went back to the store, Laura saw the handle of his revolver showing from his hip pocket.” One night, the men pound on the door and threaten Pa, who models self-control and calculation to a terrified Laura, listening from inside.  She is desperate to help her father, but her mother forbids her.  Ingalls Wilder describes Laura’s anger with a paradoxical phrase: “’Let me go, they’ll hurt Pa!’ Laura screamed in a whisper.”

Then Big Jerry enters the scene.  He is an ambivalent figure in the story, a man of mixed Native and white background, distrusted by Ma but respected by Laura’s father.  Ma is consistently more prejudice, even hateful, than her husband.  Indians are “howling savages,” to her, and Laura has no illusions about the irrational depths of her mother’s feelings: “Ma did not like Indians; she did not like even half-Indians.”  Pa, on the other hand, is much more willing to look at people as individuals. He points out that Jerry has protected the family from horse thieves.  He has also taken it on himself to care for an elderly and disabled man who brings drinking water to the workers.  By this time in the series, we know that, much as Laura loves her mother, her father is the authority and source of rational wisdom. Praising Big Jerry’s kindness to the old man, he makes clear to his wife whose opinion will prevail: “’He couldn’t take better care of his own father than he did of Old Johnny,’ Pa said. ‘For that matter, Caroline, I don’t know but what we’re beholden to him ourselves.’” Imagine that, the Ingalls family is beholden to an Indian, the very people who have been displaced and disrupted by the government’s generous Homestead Act, granting 160 acres to white settlers willing to move west and work the land.

Just when it seems the workers will attack Pa and loot the station’s store, Big Jerry returns, assuming his confusing role.  He assures the workers that there is plenty of time to take what they want: “They’ll still be there. Nobody’ll stop us when we get started.”  Laura is unable to make sense of the men’s anger, her father’s powerlessness, and Big Jerry’s easy defiance of the rule of law. Who is transgressing the moral code that her parents have taught her?

“Laura was hearing rough language. Big Jerry was using it. What he said was all mixed with swear words and with other words she had never heard.  She hardly heard them now, because she felt all broken up; she felt as if everything was smashed like a dropped plate when Jerry took sides against Pa.”

Of course, Big Jerry has not taken sides against Pa, but has used an elaborate to ruse to channel their violence against someone else, someone who, perhaps, has failed to show the respect that Pa has shown him.  After engaging the men in “drinking and playing cards,” Big Jerry succeeds in dissolving their power: “Some of the crowd went with him toward the bunkhouse, then the rest of it broke into smaller pieces and scattered away in the dark.”  The crowd of drunken, angry men has become has broken and scattered as Laura’s own confused feelings.

In the end, Laura is unfazed by her experience, because, like her famous male counterpart, Huck Finn, she wants to “light out for the territory.”

“And she remembered the sweating men and sweating horses moving strongly through clouds of dust, building the railroad in a kind of song.  She did not want ever to go back to Plum Creek.”



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