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
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.