By the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder・1939

Synopsis

This sixth installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House Books” series that documents the Ingalls’ experiences is set around 1880 and begins immediately with mention of a scarlet fever epidemic that ravaged the Ingalls’ household.  The reader quickly learns that Mary, Carrie, the new baby Grace, and Ma had all contracted it and that because of the severity of her fever, Mary is now blind.  The first section of this novel is therefore quite jarring and disorienting; for Laura set up her novel so that the family is recovering and the reader thus misses the entirety of the details of the family’s struggle through the illnesses.

Many major events occur at the beginning of this novel, for indeed, in addition to what is learned about scarlet fever and Mary’s new, scarily permanent condition, their dog Jack dies and, as a result of exciting news the family has received from Laura’s Aunt Docia who visits the family, Pa and Ma decide to move the family to Dakota Territory where Pa works in a railroad camp with Laura’s Uncle Hi.

Throughout the novel, Laura becomes quite close with her cousin, Lena, and also must mature a lot, as she now must help Mary, as well.  Pa tells Laura that she must now be “Mary’s eyes,” describing to Mary Laura sees, and Laura necessarily has many new responsibilities with Mary’s new condition; because of such added responsibility, Laura visibly matures throughout the book.  When winter approaches, the railroad camp moves out, and the Ingalls move into the Surveyor’s House to stay the winter.  Pa soon finds a good Homestead in which the family can settle, and the Ingalls realize that they have a lot of money saved up which, in the future, they use to send Mary to college.

 

Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever.  The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura.  The doctor had come every day; Pa did not know how he could pay the bill.  (Ingalls, 1)

The Epidemic: Scarlet Fever

Scarlet fever strikes the Ingalls family when they are living in Plum Creek in Minnesota.  Laura neatly avoids detailing her family’s scary brush with Scarlet Fever, and instead opens By the Shores of the Silver Lake with the family recovering and mentions how it was the scarlet fever that left Mary blind.  Incidentally, in the chronology of the Ingalls family, Laura did not write about a two year chunk of time that exists between On the Banks of Plum Creek and this book, By the Shores of Silver Lake.  It was in this two-year gap in which the Ingalls family was hit with Scarlet Fever, but other illnesses plagued the family in this time as well.  Interestingly, children’s author Cynthia Rylant studied some of Laura’s notes she had written about that portion of her family’s life and wrote a children’s book that was published in 2004 entitled Old Town in the Green Groves; this book details what Laura skipped and thus documents a series of illnesses the family faces.

Historically, scarlet fever was a very serious illness, as the invention and widespread use of antibiotics (which are integral to the treatment and prevention of Scarlet Fever) did not occur until the second half of the 20th century (Ainsworth).  Thus, the way the fever swept through the majority of the Ingalls family as well as the neighbors across the creek is quite consistent with the virulence of scarlet fever.  Scarlet fever is incredibly contagious as it is spread by “nasal droplet infection through the respiratory mucosa” (Lowth).

Considering the time period and the extent to which the fever spread, it makes a lot of sense that Pa had to call the doctor, for Scarlet Fever was “one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States [and] case fatality rates ranged from 15% to 30%” (Allexan).  Typically, in such a situation, a bedside presence was necessary, and in a spread where not only the mother (who would usually be the primary caretaker of the sick children), but also the Ingalls’ small baby, Grace, was struck, Laura writes that “The doctor had come every day” which aligns with the amount of care and attention required for scarlet fever patients of the time and especially considering Mary’s serious complications.

Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes, and Mary was blind.

She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma’s old hickory rocking chair.  All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried.  Now she could not see even the brightest light any more.  She was still patient and brave.

Her beautiful golden hair was gone.  Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s.  Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.  (Ingalls, 1-2)

While scarlet fever was notorious for being especially dangerous when complications developed, it is, thus, possible that scarlet fever was the cause for Mary’s illness.  However, according to other writings of Laura, as well as with the addition of modern medical perspectives, this was most likely not the case.  Granted, scarlet fever as the reason for Mary’s illness is credible, for “as late as 1910, scarlet fever was cited as one of the top 4 causes of blindness… [However,] the mechanism for scarlet fever causing permanent blindness is uncertain… [Thus,] it is possible that Mary Ingalls could have contracted scarlet fever and gone blind as a result.  However, evidence from newspaper reports of Mary’s illness and from Laura Ingalls’ memoirs (as opposed to her novels) suggests this is improbable” (Allexan).

In Laura’s memoirs, Mary’s illness is described vividly in much greater detail:

“One morning when I looked at her I saw one side of her face drawn out of shape.  Ma said Mary had had a stroke… After the stroke Mary began to get better, but she could not see well… As Mary grew stronger her eyes grew weaker until when she could sit up in the big chair among the pillows, she could hardly see at all… They had a long name for her sickness and said it was the result of the measles [sic] from which she had never wholly recovered.” (from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished memoir, “Pioneer Girl”)

Mary’s illness was detailed in the local newspaper; the clipping reads that:

Miss Mary Ingalls has been confined to her bed about ten days with severe head ache.  It was feared that hemorrhage of the brain had set in in [sic] one side of her face became partially paralyzed.  She is now slowly convalescing.  (clipping from local newspaper)

A month later the newspaper included that she was still suffering.  Ultimately, Mary remained permanently blind, though her paralysis went away.  In a letter to her daughter, Rose, written March 23, 1937, Laura wrote that “Mary had… some sort of spinal sickness… We learned later… that the nerves of her eyes were paralyzed and there was no hope.”

Mary’s documentation for enrollment in college confirms this, as “the register lists Mary’s cause of blindness as “brain fever,” which was a period term for meningoencephalitis” (Allexan).  This diagnosis can be confirmed in a variety of ways, including that it aligns with Mary’s “stroke” (…though a real stroke seems unlikely, because no other area of the body is reportedly paralyzed…), Mary’s eyes retained their color and beauty, and Mary seemingly lost no cognitive ability, as “Mary’s teachers judged her “very smart” and she consistently scored A’s” (Allexan).

Given all of this information, and especially considering the fact that Laura seemed to know full well that Mary’s blindness did not result from scarlet fever, this sheds interesting light on the nature of children’s literature, for it can be presumed that the reason for Mary’s blindness was changed in order to make it more understandable for the children for whom the books are intended.  “Alternatively, Laura’s editors may have thought readers were more familiar with scarlet fever than brain fever or meningoencephalitis” (Allexan).  However, there is no doubt that the Ingalls did, indeed, suffer from scarlet vever – possibly multiple times – as is documented in other writings of Laura’s.

 

Scarlet Fever also hits characters in The Velveteen Rabbit and Little Women.

For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.

 

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