Little House in the Present: America's economic downturns run through Laura Ingalls Wilder's books like a big three-hearted river

St. Louis could never in a million years be mistaken for El Dorado, but its neighborhoods and shopping districts that chugged along before the current Recession continue to chug, if at lower rpm and the occasional sputter. Mansfield, though, looks defeated. As you drive south into town on the main drag — named, ironically, Commercial Street — the first thing you see is a boarded-up motel. The next is a sign advertising an outdoor pageant called Laura's Memories, with performances every Friday and Saturday night from late August through early October. The show, I later learned, was written by a Mansfield woman who'd always aspired to create a Broadway musical; the cast comprises Mansfieldians ranging in age from two to eighty-two (plus one puppy).

Downtown Mansfield extends three blocks or so and consists of old wooden buildings in need of repainting. There are two restaurants (one is missing half its sign), a hardware store, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library and a shop called Laura's "Sweet Memories" that sells penny candy and used copies of the Little House books. There's the Mansfield Historical Society, featuring vintage farming equipment, football memorabilia from Mansfield High (including a program from the team's "perfect season" — 1946, when it finished 0-8), Laura's blue willow china and a backgammon set and an armchair that Almanzo made.

The town square contains two structures (one a gazebo, the other a pair of restrooms) and a bust of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The square, though, is named for Mansfield's other famous resident, Carl Mays, who played for fifteen seasons in the major leagues and was among the best pitchers of the 1910s. It doesn't say so on the small metal plaque honoring him, but Mays was also one of the most ill-tempered players of his time and is best known for an incident in 1920 when, while pitching for the New York Yankees, he fatally beaned Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman.

Aimee Levitt
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl in De Smet, South Dakota.

Mansfield grew up along the railroad line. The tracks run behind the town square, and every ten minutes or so a freight train roars through, drowning out the stentorian voice of Kate Barrad, secretary of the Mansfield Area Chamber of Commerce and emcee for Wilder Days. The train doesn't stop here anymore, though, and the interstate is 30 miles away. Time has passed Mansfield by.

Like a lot of Little House readers, I don't remember the plots of the books as well as I remember the details. Like when Pa killed a pig, he'd blow up the bladder and Laura and her older sister Mary would bat it around like a balloon. Or how the best part of a pig is the tail, roasted over an open fire. (I'm still waiting to see pig's tail at the farmers' market.) Or how Ma let Laura and Mary make candy by drizzling maple syrup over a pan of snow. The books are like a wormhole back into the 1870s. That's the beauty of them: the clarity of those details. It doesn't even cross your mind to wonder how Laura Ingalls Wilder kept them in her mind for 60 years, until the early 1930s when she finally wrote them down. As little Laura thinks at the very end of Little House in the Big Woods, "This is now.... It can never be a long time ago."

The Little House books are all the more appealing because they make living in a tiny log cabin in the middle of the Wisconsin woods or a one-room log house in the middle of the Kansas prairie or a dugout in a hill in southwestern Minnesota seem fun. It never occurred to me that Laura never ate chocolate or that she might have been bored with nothing to read besides Pa's big green book of animals. I wanted to sweep floors (drawing the broom, as Ma counseled, rather than flipping it). I wanted to help my mom make cheese by pressing curds into a hoop, instead of driving to the grocery store to pick up a brick of Kraft Singles. I wanted to get only one stick of candy every year for Hanukkah (we didn't celebrate Christmas) and make it last as long as I could.

This past spring Wendy McClure published The Wilder Life, a book-long meditation on her fascination with all things Laura Ingalls. She made the maple candy. She visited all the places Laura had written about in the novels. She bought a butter churn and churned butter. (It turns out making butter isn't as impressive an achievement as it seems: You can do it by shaking a Mason jar filled with cream, as McClure demonstrated when she came to St. Louis for a reading. But that was almost beside the point.)

Inspired, I went back and reread the books, applying my own version of the McClure method. I swept the floors of my apartment (careful to draw the broom). I found a hunk of salt pork at Schnucks and fried up the Ingalls pantry staple in an iron skillet per Ma's instructions as laid out in By the Shores of Silver Lake. (It was very salty.) On weekends I made big batches of Bolognese sauce to "put up" in the freezer. I laid in several months' supply of toilet paper in the basement. At night I lay in bed and thought about how gosh-darn cozy everything was.

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