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

During intermission I learned that the couple seated next to me had five children performing in the pageant: Their three sons danced in the "Farmer Boy" number, their younger daughter was an extra in the schoolhouse scenes, and Sis played Plum Creek-era Laura. Mom and Dad had seen the show a lot. During the "Farmer Boy" song, they clapped along almost absentmindedly. They'd also come prepared, with books to read.

I was about to ask them about the rehearsal process, which I imagined would have been more interesting than the actual show — sort of a cross between Friday Night Lights and Glee, with a dash of Waiting for Guffman — but just then a woman sitting up front collapsed. It was an hour before the paramedics finally wheeled her out on a gurney. During the extended intermission, some audience members called it a night; others stuck it out and passed the time by gawking politely. The piano accompanist played hymns. My neighbors read.

As the show was about to resume, the actor who played Pa stood up to announce that the stricken audience member was named Doris and that she had a problem with her leg. He asked that we all bow our heads while he said a short prayer for her recovery and for wisdom for the doctors who were tending to her. Everyone did. Maybe that's the spirit of Mansfield.

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.

Before the rains came, I helped judge the Little Laura/Little Farmer Boy Lookalike Contest on Saturday morning. One of the judges had dropped out and Kate Barrad had asked me to step in, figuring that as an out-of-towner, I'd be impartial.

Contestants were to be evaluated on the basis of their costumes, their poise, their personality and the judges' overall impressions. As each kid walked — or was carried by his or her mother — across the gazebo, Barrad read off her name, age, hometown, favorite subject in school and favorite Little House book. There were about 50 children in all, the vast majority of them girls aged six to ten. Many were from out of town, and a lot of them were homeschooled.

The job was harder than it sounds. In their long calico dresses and sunbonnets and pigtails, the girls all looked alike. I wound up awarding extra points for creative accessorizing (a live duckling) and deducting for blatant costume discontinuity (gym shoes). My favorite contestant was the girl who announced that she ought to be allowed to be Mary, because they both had blond hair and Laura's was brown. Though Wilder's Laura once slapped Mary out of envy for those golden curls, a logical mind and a strong sense of fairness were two of her most prominent traits, and I decided she'd have liked the blond girl's spunk.

The rain didn't begin in earnest until Barrad began announcing the winners. I hid under a tree to hear the results (the blond girl didn't win) and then ducked into the library, a single room with a few bookshelves and a few computers that looked old enough to be obsolete. Brandy Elliott, the librarian, showed me scrapbooks she'd assembled of newspaper clippings about Laura and Almanzo and the paper dolls Laura made as an old woman, each dress carefully shaded in colored pencil. (Who did she make them for? I wondered. Rose Wilder Lane never had children of her own, though she did unofficially adopt a number of promising students in Mansfield and Albania, where she lived in the 1920s, and paid for their education. One recipient of Lane's largesse, Roger Lea MacBride, ran for president in 1976 on the Libertarian ticket. He also inherited the Wilder estate when Lane died in 1968.

Though Laura had stipulated that the copyrights should pass to the Mansfield library, Rose willed them to MacBride instead. The library received a single royalty payment of $28,011.05 from the publisher, HarperCollins, in 1972. In 1999, contending with a broken heating system and a leaky roof, the library sued MacBride's heirs and HarperCollins for an undisclosed sum. At the time, the editor of the Entertainment Law and Finance newsletter told the New York Times that the estate could be worth as much as $100 million. The library ended up settling for $875,000.

Elliott led me to the china cabinet in the back of the room to show me the library's most treasured relic: Laura's autograph album. She flipped through the pages, which bore the signatures, nearly all inscribed in elegant Palmer Method script, of Laura's school friends from De Smet: Mary Power, Cap Garland, Ben Woodworth, Ida Brown and several who didn't make it into the books. And a message from Mary, embossed in two lines of Braille.

They were real!

There are more relics up at the farmstead — which, I was astonished to learn, Elliott has never visited. (She didn't grow up in Mansfield.) Letters and dresses and Laura's pistol and the little china box she received the first Christmas they lived on Plum Creek and the little wooden lap desk that carried the $100 bill to Missouri. The house itself is a little house indeed, because Laura and Almanzo were little people: She stood four foot eleven; he barely topped five feet. The ceilings are low, the kitchen cabinets close to the ground. There's an indoor bathroom and an I Love Lucy-era fridge. (Despite the good old days she depicted in such loving detail, Wilder was no enemy of progress. One of the most ecstatic chapters in the Little House series appears in On the Shores of Silver Lake, when Pa takes Laura out to see the railroad getting built.) On the desk in the study, there's an orange-covered tablet and pencil like the ones Laura used for her first drafts. (Rose typed up the manuscripts.) Within stumbling distance is the short couch where Wilder would doze after pulling all-nighters, so as not to wake Almanzo.

« Previous Page
Next Page »