Why Don’t You Go to Her?

Excerpt from an inter­view with James Allen Willis, talk­ing to his nephew Samuel in 1926 about Nathan Uri­ah Willis — James’s broth­er, Samuel’s father — and his encounter with L. Frank Baum. The record­ing, which was made a year after Nathan’s death, is dete­ri­o­rat­ed and Samuel’s ques­tions are too faint to hear.

It was in 1866, when the grasshop­pers invad­ed town, that I under­stood just how much your father loved Dorothy Gale. We were young men then, your father and I, though he still called me baby broth­er when he want­ed to put me in my place, and I still let him. We lived with our par­ents in a tiny white house under a giant maple that peo­ple always told us would fall on the house, though it nev­er did.

The first swarm of grasshop­pers fell on the town like a storm. I was in the house with your grand­fa­ther. I don’t remem­ber where your grand­moth­er was. We heard a rush­ing sound out­side, like the flood was com­ing, and we ran to the win­dows and it was dark at three in the after­noon.

Get your broth­er inside,” your grand­fa­ther said.

I found your father on the porch of the house, star­ing into the street. Dorothy Gale was stand­ing there with her eyes closed and her arms out, while all those grasshop­pers swarmed around her. She wasn’t wor­ried one bit.

Come inside,” I said to your father.

No,” he said.

Dorothy Gale was ten years old­er than your father and mar­ried already to the man across the street, who none of us liked very much. But watch­ing your father watch­ing her, I real­ized what he thought. How he felt.

And she looked back.

I don’t know if any­thing ever hap­pened between them. In a way, it didn’t mat­ter. I looked at her and saw a woman, pret­ty and kind, who was nice to us when we’d been kids. Your father, though. Your father saw the world in her.

You know we lost our house to the twin tor­na­dos that came through in 1879. Maybe you don’t know it killed Dorothy Gale and her hus­band, too. They found her in a pud­dle, face down, like she’d gone to sleep and drowned in it. I looked at your father to see what he’d do. I’d been mar­ried for three years by then. He was still a bach­e­lor. He went to their funer­al and bowed his head at her grave and went home. Two years lat­er he got mar­ried to a girl who’d been sweet on him since they were kids. They had you and your sis­ter and we all moved to Kansas City for work, and maybe because deep down we knew Irv­ing was done for, which it was, and I thought that was that.

But then twen­ty years lat­er those books came out, and it didn’t take long for peo­ple who’d lived in Irv­ing to talk. For a lit­tle while we men­tioned it when­ev­er we saw each oth­er, us sur­vivors of those storms. That there was a Dorothy Gale in those books, too, with tor­na­dos involved, and wasn’t that a fun­ny coin­ci­dence?

It wasn’t to your father. I think he must have kept it from you, but he read the books, one after the oth­er, and then start­ed to piece togeth­er the sto­ry of the man who’d writ­ten them. He start­ed talk­ing about it to me every time we got togeth­er, prob­a­bly because nobody else want­ed to lis­ten to it. For a lit­tle while he wouldn’t talk about any­thing else with me. L. Frank Baum seemed to be every­thing. A trav­el­ing sales­man, a writer, a jour­nal­ist, a the­ater man, a failed busi­ness­man. Nev­er any­thing rep­utable, nev­er any­thing that count­ed with your father as work. Then he hit it big with the books, and that was it.

Good for him,” I said. But your father couldn’t leave it alone.

He stole her,” your father said. “He stole Dorothy and made mil­lions.” That was when he said he’d fig­ured out Baum was liv­ing, in Los Ange­les or some­thing like that, and he thought he’d pay him a vis­it.

What are you going to do?” I said.

He needs to know what he did,” your father said. “He needs to hear it from some­one.”

I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to go, but there was no talk­ing him out of it, so he saved up and off he went.

Do you remem­ber him being gone for as long as he was? You were out of the house already, and mar­ried your­self, and I think you were in Tope­ka then. Our fam­i­ly always did move around. Your moth­er didn’t like to men­tion it. I think she didn’t like to think too hard about what it meant, that he would trav­el halfway across the coun­try and back again just to talk to a man about a woman who’d been dead for decades. So she let it go.

The way there was faster than your father thought. The way back was slow­er. But while he was there, he told me, he man­aged to meet Baum.

It turned out Baum had read about the Irv­ing tor­na­dos once. So your father was right about that. But Baum swore up and down that he didn’t remem­ber the name from any­where. It must have been an uncon­scious thing.

Then Baum told him that he’d had a niece named Dorothy, Dorothy Gage, who died when she was only five months old, and he named the girl in the books after her to cheer up his wife, who’d always want­ed a girl and nev­er got to have one, and took that baby’s death hard.

So they’d all lost a Dorothy, Baum said.

There are peo­ple who say you’re sup­posed to move on from your grief. Time heals all wounds, as the old say­ing goes. But I don’t believe any of that. I think you just keep get­ting hurt, you keep los­ing pieces of your­self, and the trick to liv­ing is to fig­ure out how to keep going with­out those pieces. Until the pieces you’ve lost are so big that there isn’t real­ly enough left of you to keep going.

Your father stopped talk­ing about Baum after he got back from Los Ange­les. I know he loved you and your sis­ter as well as any­one could, and I believe he loved your moth­er, too. But those songs he wrote, near the end there, after your moth­er died? I don’t think they were about her. Or not only her. I think he lost a big piece of him­self the day after those tor­na­dos came through Irv­ing, and took our house away, and took Dorothy, too. He fig­ured out how to get through the rest of his life all right. But I think there was always a part of him back there that night in 1879, lay­ing on the ground with the wind blow­ing the town to smithereens around him, and the storm was lift­ing Dorothy Gale up into the air. And he had one hand on the hem of her dress, and he wasn’t let­ting go.

 

The fol­low­ing song was found by Drew Bunting on an acetate disk in Samuel Willis’s house just after his death. The song is cred­it­ed to Nathan Willis. The band is labeled as the Kansas Riv­er Mud Skip­pers; mem­bers unknown. It appears Willis com­mis­sioned the band to record one of his relative’s songs, but it is unclear what, if any­thing, was done with the record­ing after that. 

Lis­ten to the song,Why Don’t You Go To Her

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Bri­an Fran­cis Slat­tery is an edi­tor, writer, and musi­cian. He is the author of four nov­els and, most recent­ly, is co-author of Book­burn­ers, a ser­i­al with three oth­er authors. His eth­no­mu­si­co­log­i­cal stud­ies were most recent­ly sup­port­ed by a grant from the Lester D. Marl­bor­ough Foun­da­tion for Archival Spelunk­ing and Exca­va­tion.