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

And there's Pa's fiddle. Practically a Little House character in itself, it's always in the background, singing lullabies at bedtime or ballads to lighten the long winter nights or "Dixie" as the family prepares to roll defiantly out of Kansas.

The Saturday of Wilder Days is the one day of the year that the violin is allowed out of its glass case, and the only person who's allowed to play it is David Scrivener, a Mansfield boy who decamped to Branson. It was a disappointment to learn that Scrivener doesn't much like playing the fiddle. Violins need to be played, he explained. Because Pa's is so underused, it won't stay in tune. "It's not itself," Scrivener told me.

Nobody seemed to notice, though. Accompanied by Aovie Dooms on guitar, Scrivener dipped into The Little House Songbook. Audience members jostled for position, held up cameras. After the musicians exhausted the better-known tunes in the Ingalls canon, they invited requests. I considered asking for Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," but a man behind yelled out for the "Tennessee Waltz" before I could get the words out.

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.

Just over Scrivener's shoulder I could see the door to the gift shop, which is filled with books and flimsy calico dresses and tomahawk-making kits and T-shirts and coffee mugs. None of it is especially useful; neither Laura nor Ma would have approved.

The fiddle launched into "Pop! Goes the Weasel," and I wondered what Laura would have made of this spectacle. Both Lauras actually: the fictionalized girl and the real woman who wrote about her, to keep the wolf from the door during the Depression and to document for posterity the pioneer spirit that had permeated her childhood, however imperfectly her family held to it. Did she dream her house would become a shrine? (It's a good bet she never dreamed that a Minnesotan named John Charles Wilson would create a religion called Lauraism based on the principle that she is God.) Did she dream that her stories would be considered a prime example of family values and the virtues of the simple life? Or that 75 years after conjuring nostalgia for bygone Great Depressions as a means to soften the hardships of a current one, her creations would perform that same function for a future one?

Did she dream that her Little House would be called upon to sustain the little town where it was born?

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