Transcript

137:

The Book That Changed Your Life
Transcript

Originally aired 08.20.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/137

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When she was seven, when she would visit her grandmother, Alexa would look through the books that her grandfathered had owned back when he was alive. What she liked especially was finding the books where he'd made little notes in the margins.

Alexa Junge

So that was the part that was really compelling.

Ira Glass

Because they were hints about who he was.

Alexa Junge

Exactly. And a lot of times they were really critical. He would write, I steadfastly disagree. Or something like that. Or he would write, Ah!, if he really liked something.

Ira Glass

As a kid, over the course of about a year, she systematically divided the books into two piles, the ones with markings, and the ones without. And then she tried to read all the ones with markings. Her grandfather was a playwright and a teacher, and the books were creaky old books from the 1930s about theater and about how to write plays. It was thrilling. And when she was 11, she wrote her very first play, using the rules in the books, rules from another generation.

Alexa Junge

These were archaic rules, like start your play with lots of exposition, which was really in vogue at the time. So I started mine with a butler, whose name I believe was Manson, picking up a phone, saying stuff like, no, the lady and gentleman are not home right now. Why, at a fancy charity ball. Yes, he's still drinking too much, and she's having an affair with a gardener. Whom shall I say is calling?

[LAUGHTER]

I'm not kidding.

Ira Glass

You were 11.

Alexa Junge

By the time I got to college and I started to actually take writing classes, it was brought to my attention that stage directions shouldn't be things like, there follows a mighty howling of wind. And one of the things my teacher-- who was not a young man, by any means-- said was, he was like, sweetheart, we don't use sotto voce anymore to mean he whispers. We just write, whispers.

Ira Glass

But of all the books on her grandfather's shelves, there was one book that affected her more than the others. It had lots of her grandfather's writing in the margins.

Alexa Junge

And he was very critical, so it was very rare that he would write, Ah!, exclamation point. And there were more Ahs! in Moss Hart's autobiography, which is called Act One, then I think almost any of the other books that he had.

Ira Glass

Moss Hart was a Broadway playwright, the man who directed My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, who was married to another then-luminary named Kitty Carlisle, who people these days mostly remember as a game show panelist back in the 1960s. The book details how he started as a kid in the Bronx, found something he just loved to do, which was to make plays. Reading it as a child, Alexa had that experience that you have sometimes as a kid. She did not understand everything in the book, but she understood enough to know that she really, really liked it.

Alexa Junge

Like, I knew what was going on and this book was fun. It drove him so powerfully, and it seemed to make him so happy.

Ira Glass

She read Act One by Moss Hart over and over. She memorized long stretches. She tried to memorize the entire book. Even today, she recalls where specific Ahs! were penciled into her grandfather's copy.

Alexa Junge

Because it felt like I was recognizing an old friend. It felt like a familiarity of, oh, I found a home. This guy likes the same home I want. So--

Ira Glass

These are my people.

Alexa Junge

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

You don't meet many people who tell you that a book changed their lives. It's an appealing notion, I think, because it's nice to think that our lives could be changed just by an idea, by the vision of the world that happens in a book, instead of what our lives are often changed by-- you know, dumb luck, tragedies, coincidences. Today on our radio program, stories of people whose lives were changed by books.

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in four acts. Act One is called, well, Act One, getting clues about how to live your life from notes scribbled by your dead grandfather in the margins of a book. Act Two, The Family That Reads Together. In this act, the story of how when David Sedaris was a boy, he stumbled upon a dirty book in the woods. It made his sisters view all adults with newfound suspicion. It sent him to the dictionary. Act Three, Roger and Me, and Lewis and Clark, the story of a construction worker, and this question, can your life be changed by a book that you have never seen and have not read? Act Four, Little Sod Houses For You and Me. It is the old, old story, my friend. New York girl leaves big city, heads out to a small town on the prairie with a dream and a bonnet. Stay with us.

Act One. Act One.

Ira Glass

Act One, Act One. So Alexa Junge says that she never meant for Moss Hart's autobiography to be a blueprint for her life, but looking back on the events of the past two decades, that seems to have been the case.

Alexa Junge

Basically, what I did was, like he did in his life story, I moved to New York. I think I kind of followed him there.

Ira Glass

Really? You consciously followed him there. You thought--

Alexa Junge

I don't think it was conscious, but there are so many things that I did that he did. I wasn't as good a-- I mean, he was more sort of-- He could fake it better than I can. But you know, he had to get money at a certain point. He was like, I need money. So he thought, who's the richest person I know? And he wrote a letter to this woman, I think, and then showed up on her doorstep and said, I'm Moss Hart and I have a play, and if you give me money, we'll put it on. And she did.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Alexa Junge

Isn't that amazing? And I wrote letters to strangers and said, I'm Alexa and I have a play, and if you fund my play, you can be part of the theater.

Ira Glass

And did that work?

Alexa Junge

It did one time. Yeah.

Ira Glass

At some point, did you start to get a crush on him?

Alexa Junge

Yeah. It definitely turned from kind of a mentor, a make-believe mentor, to a pretend husband-to-be kind of situation. Yeah, somehow I think I decided that time had completely screwed up and sent Moss to Kitty Carlisle, and that if he just hadn't died two years before I was born, then me and Moss might really have had a chance.

Ira Glass

How would this thought manifest itself in daily life? Like, would you be out on dates and just think, hmm, not Moss. He's not Moss.

Alexa Junge

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Really?

Alexa Junge

Yeah, yeah. Well, it would be like, there'd be something missing. It just wasn't quite what you'd want. And it was like, why can't I find some guy and we'll work on this play together and we'll be, like, in out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia, and we'll be up for 48 hours trying to fix our play, and then we'll crack it, and then we'll order room service?

Ira Glass

So how far did the whole thing go?

Alexa Junge

Well, I think, maybe right before the end of college, Kitty Carlisle spoke one evening.

Ira Glass

At your college?

Alexa Junge

That's right. She was very active in the New York arts scene, and she was extremely a huge advocate of the arts in our country. And so she was talking about that, I think. And I stood in line after she spoke to meet her. And there were all these people around me, and they were like, you were really good on that game show. And I was just, like, disgusted, like, oh please, she was in A Night at the Opera. She's like a singer. She's not just a game show lady.

But by the time I got to the front of the line, and I went up to talk to her, I said what I wanted to say, sort of, which was, you know, Moss changed my life and I moved to New York to be a playwright like him. And I think I said something along the lines of, your husband meant so much to me. And she just looked at me, and she was so elegant and so classy, and she just said, I don't understand, darling. Did you know him? She was just terrified.

Ira Glass

Like, really? She looked terrified?

Alexa Junge

Yeah. I think she probably heard some kind of ownership or possessiveness in the way I said your husband meant so much to me, as if I knew him. So I think it was confusing, since she probably could figure out that he probably was dead before I was born.

But it was disturbing, and I felt terrible. And it made me realize how just far from reality this thing had taken me. And it was just scary to scare her, because she's the person that he loved.

But my friend that was with me was really nice, because we walked home afterward, and he was like, eh, don't worry about her. You're much better for Moss than she was. He knew the whole story, too.

Ira Glass

Eh, Moss was just spending time with her because she happened to be alive. You know, you talked about how you felt fated for him in some way, and drawn to him in some way. Have you thought about what is the line that divides that kind of dreamy, healthy feeling, I think, from a scary, stalky feeling?

Alexa Junge

Yeah sure, because the truth is, really, the way he functioned in my life was like as a comfort. And I knew. I mean, it wasn't a break from reality, but it was the sense that, when you read a book and something speaks to you and you feel understood, and so it makes the world a less lonely place.

Ira Glass

Alexa, how much of your feeling about Moss is connected to your feeling about your grandfather, who you didn't really know?

Alexa Junge

I think they're intimately connected. I really do. I think that, because I didn't know my grandfather, I couldn't talk to him about what his life in the theater was like. And so this book gave me 444 pages of what it would be like to want to be in the theater and how you might try to make that happen. And so it was like he was the sort of stand-in for my grandfather in a lot of ways.

And the other part about it is that the way people talk about him-- because I then, of course, went and read every single book I could get my hands on about him, or that even had any mention of him in it-- is with such love and appreciation and affection. It's just staggering. I think that that was how people spoke about my grandfather. And I recognized it, that same enthusiasm and sort of the way their eyes would light up.

Ira Glass

Today, before our interview, you faxed over to our offices here at WBEZ a-- I'm going to pull it out here-- a letter that your grandfather wrote in 1969, obviously as he was quite ill. And it does have this quality of just-- It's one of the most beautifully written things I've ever read.

Alexa Junge

Isn't it? It's really something.

Ira Glass

He spends, I should say most of this thing, he starts off-- this is to his students, right?

Alexa Junge

Mmm-hmm. yep.

Ira Glass

"Dear friends"-- and he says, "I've asked Donald Davis"-- who I would assume was one of his students.

Alexa Junge

One of his coworkers. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Coworkers, OK. --"to read this to you. It's intended to tell you as much as I know about my present situation, and thereby, of course, to let you know what the prospects are for the future of the work we've begun together. In planning this letter in my mind, I've been pulled this way and that by very conflicting impulses. I prefer to consider any of my own sickness, any deep trouble, as a very personal matter, possibly to be shared with close members of our family, but never to be inflicted on anyone else. At the same time, I detest mysteries. And those of you who have called have, I hope, been told the truth, insofar as we knew it. But the truth has been shifting, sometimes very swiftly. And what you may have heard a few weeks back is now untrue."

And then he has this really pretty paragraph. He says, "Besides, though some of you are relatively recent friends, some of our common ties go years back. And old friends or new, the depth of my feeling for you obliges me to be entirely honest with you. And so I'm going to put the next several paragraphs in parentheses, and I'm masking Donald not to read them aloud. Each of you who wishes to can read it for himself. Anyone who dislikes these semi-clinical details can avoid them."

And then there are couple paragraphs that basically describe the state of his illness. And then he talks about the prognosis, which is not very good, in through another few paragraphs, and then into this last paragraph. Why don't you read that.

Alexa Junge

Sure. "Doubtless, all of that sounds very gloomy. I do admit I could think of happier matters. For one thing, I don't at all approve of my own extinction. I don't like the idea of it one bit. Though reason assures me that the world can get along very nicely without me, I can't quite believe that it will. Still, there are a few small compensations. For one thing, I had always hoped that I could face my own death with some equanimity, but it's a bit of a satisfaction to find that I can."

And then he talks about my mom and my grandmother. And it says, "And that's really what I'm finally wanting to say. I think you're a great bunch. And in case there isn't a chance to say it again, thanks for your concern, your calls, your notes, but above all for your love. You've had my love and I've had yours, and I'm a damn fortunate man. So thanks and good luck. Marvin Borowsky."

Ira Glass

And so this to you feels very much like Hart, too, Moss Hart.

Alexa Junge

Yeah. Like, guys who said, I'm a damn fortunate man, you're a swell kid. Yeah.

Ira Glass

After a few years in New York, Alexa Junge moved to Los Angeles, as her grandfather did, to write screenplays for Hollywood. Most recently, she was one of the executive producers for the TV show Friends.

Act Two. The Family That Reads Together.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Family That Reads Together. Sometimes a book can change your life, but just in a small, temporary way, and not for the better. We have this cautionary tale about how a book infected an entire family from writer David Sedaris. A quick warning to listeners before we begin, some of the content of this story might not be suitable for every listener, though there is no graphic language, no nasty words, no graphic scenes, nothing, in fact, we even had to bleep.

David Sedaris

I found the book hidden in the woods beneath a sheet of plywood, its cover torn away and the pages damp with mildew. I read, "Brock and Bonnie Rivers stood in their driveway, waving goodbye to the Reverend Hassleback. 'Goodbye,' they said, waving. 'Goodbye,' the reverend responded. 'Tell those two teens of yours, Josh and Sandi, that they'll make an excellent addition to our young persons' ministry. They're fine kids,' he said with a wink. 'Almost as fine and foxy as their parents.' The Rivers chuckled, raising their hands in another wave. When the reverend's car finally left the driveway, they stood for a moment in the bright sunshine before descending into the basement dungeon to unshackle the children."

The theme of the book was that people are not always what they seem. Highly respected in their upper-middleclass community, the Rivers family practiced a literal interpretation of the phrase "Love thy neighbor." Limber as gymnasts, these people were both shameless and insatiable. Father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son, after exhausting every possible combination, they widened their circle to include horny sea captains and door-to-door knife salesmen. Yes, these people were naughty, but at the age of 13, I couldn't help but admire their infectious energy and spirited enjoyment of life.

The first few times I read the book, I came away shocked, not by the characters' behavior, but by the innumerable typos. Had nobody bothered to proofread this book before sending it to print? In the opening chapter, the daughter is caught fondling her brother's ceck in the dining room. On page 33, the son has sex with his mother, who we are told possesses a fond par of tots. I showed the book to my sister Lisa, who tore it from my hands, saying, let me hold on to this for a while.

She and I often swapped babysitting jobs and considered ourselves fairly well read in the field of literary pornography. "Look in the parents' bedroom beneath the sweaters in the second drawer of the white dresser," she'd say. We'd each read The Story of O and the collected writings of the Marquis de Sade with one eye on the front door, fearful that the homeowners might walk in and torture us with barbed whips and hot oils. We know you, our looks would say as the parents checked on their sleeping children. We know all about you.

The book went from Lisa to our 11-year-old sister, Gretchen, who interpreted it as a startling nonfiction expose on the American middle class. "I'm pretty sure this exact same thing is going on right here in North Hills," she whispered, tucking the book beneath the artificial grass of her Easter basket. "Take the Sherman family, for example. Just last week, I saw Heidi sticking her hands down Steve Junior's pants." "The guy has two broken arms," I said. "She was probably just tucking in his shirt." "Would you ask one of us to tuck in your shirt?" she asked. She had a point. A careful study suggested that the Shermans were not the people they pretended to be. The father was often seen tugging at his crotch, and the wife had a disturbing habit of looking you straight in the eye while sniffing her fingers. A veil had been lifted, especially for Gretchen, who now saw the world as a steaming pit of unbridled sexuality.

Seated on a lounge chair at the country club, she would narrow her eyes, speculating on the children crowding the shallow end of the pool. "I have a sneaking suspicion Christina Youngblood might be our half sister," she said. "She's got her father's chin, but the eyes and mouth are pure Mom." I felt uneasy implicating our parents, but Gretchen provided a wealth of frightening evidence. She noted the way our mother applied lipstick at the approach of the potato chip delivery man, whom she addressed by first name and often invited in to use the bathroom. Our father referred to the bank tellers as "doll" and "sweetheart," and their responses suggested that he had taken advantage of them one time too many.

The Greek Orthodox church, the gaily dressed couples at the country club, even our elderly collie, Duchess, they were all in on it according to Gretchen, who took to piling furniture against her bedroom door before going to sleep at night. The book wound up in the hands of our 10-year-old sister, Amy, who used it as a textbook in the make-believe class she held after school each day. Dressed in a wig and high heels, she passed her late afternoons standing before a blackboard and imitating her teachers.

"I'm very sorry, Candice, but I'm going to have to fail you," she'd say, addressing one of the empty folding chairs arranged before her. "The problem is not that you don't try. The problem is that you're stupid, very, very stupid. Isn't Candice stupid, class? She's ugly, too. Am I wrong? Very well, Candice, you can sit back down now. And for god's sakes, please stop crying. OK, class. Now I'm going to read to you from this week's new book. It's a story about a California family and it's called Next of Kin."

If Amy had read the book, then surely it had been seen by eight-year-old Tiffany, who shared her bedroom, and possibly by our brother, Paul, who at the age of two might have sucked on the binding, which was even more dangerous than reading it. Clearly, this had to stop before it got out of hand. Even our ancient Greek grandmother was arriving at the breakfast table with suspicious-looking circles beneath her eyes.

Gretchen took the book and hid it under the carpet of her bedroom, where it was discovered by our housekeeper, Lena, who eventually handed it over to our mother. "I'll make sure this is properly disposed of," my mother said, hurrying down the hallway to her bedroom. "Panetration," she laughed, reading out loud from a randomly selected page. "Oh, this ought to be good."

Weeks later, Gretchen and I found the book hidden between the mattress and box springs of my parents' bed, the pages stained with coffee rings and cigarette ash. The discovery seemed to validate all of Gretchen's suspicions. "They'll be coming for us any day now," she warned. "Be prepared, my friend, because this time they'll be playing for keeps." We waited. I'd always made it a point to kiss my mother before going to bed, but not anymore. The feel of her hand on my shoulder now made my flesh crawl.

She was hemming a pair of my pants one afternoon when, standing before her on a kitchen chair, I felt her hands grace my butt. "I-- I just want to be friends," I stammered. "Nothing more, nothing less." She took the pins out of her mouth and studied me for a moment before sighing. "Damn, and here you've been leading me on all this time."

I read the book once more, hoping to recapture my earlier pleasure, but it was too late now. I couldn't read the phrase, "He paunched his daughter's rock-hard nopples," without thinking of Gretchen barricading herself in the bedroom. I thought I might throw the book away, or maybe even burn it, but like a perfectly good outgrown sweater, it seemed a shame to destroy it when the world was full of people who might get some use out of it.

With this in mind, I carried the book to the grocery store parking lot, and tossed it into the back of a shiny new pickup truck. I then took up my post beside the store's outdoor vending machines, waiting until the truck's owner returned, pushing a cart full of groceries. He was a wiry man, with fashionable mutton-chop sideburns and a half-cast on his arm.

As he placed his bags into the back of the truck, his eyes narrowed upon the book. I watched as he picked it up and leafed through the first few pages, before raising his head to search the parking lot. He took a cigarette from his pocket and tapped it against the roof of the truck before lighting it. Then he slipped the book into his pocket and drove away.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of several books, including Naked, in which this story appears. Coming up, the frontier then and then. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Roger And Me, Lewis And Clark.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, The Book That Changed My Life. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Roger and Me, Lewis and Clark. There's book as literature, there's book as filth, and then there's book as pure physical object. This is the story of somebody for whom a book changed his life, though it is almost random that it happened at all, that he got to know this book in the first place. Jeremy Goldstein tells the story.

Jeremy Goldstein

Roger was 34, working in construction and looking for things to do in his spare time. And one day, he noticed this plate he'd been given by his grandmother, a plate from a 1905 fair celebrating the centennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition to explore the Western frontier. He looked at the plate and wondered if there was anything else left from the fair still around. It turned out there was a lot, and he started buying it up.

Roger Wendlick

It was a fun hobby, collecting the various memorabilia from that fair. But when you reach a point where I had about 1,100 items, one of the larger collections known, it was the end of the treasure hunt. And I couldn't find anything I didn't have. And somebody mentioned, well, why don't you collect books about Lewis and Clark? I thought, well, that might be kind of fun to do.

Jeremy Goldstein

So in 1984, he went to a book dealer in Vancouver, and picked out an 80-year-old set of books that chronicled Lewis and Clark's expedition. The price? $695.

Roger Wendlick

I had a difficult time writing out that check, because at that time, in fact, I really didn't know much about books. I proceeded to take that set of books downtown in Portland, to an established book dealer whose name was Preston McMann. And I showed him the set. I said, well, that's it, isn't it? That's all the journals. And he kind of chuckled. He said, no, there's a lot more publications than that about the journals of Lewis and Clark. And so I went ahead and said, well, I tell you what. I said, you give me about five years, I'm going to have every book published about Lewis and Clark. And he laughed so hard, he about laughed himself out of his chair.

He was a heavyset gentleman in his late 60s at the time. And he said, there's people that have spent lifetimes looking for every book of Lewis and Clark and have never succeeded. Well, I told him, well, maybe I won't have every book, but I'll have the best library of anybody in the United States. And he laughed harder.

Jeremy Goldstein

Strange as it may sound, this is all it took to send Roger on his path of amassing, in just 14 years, what did become the largest-known private collection of Lewis and Clark books in the United States. And all this time, he kept working in construction, excavating landscapes, laying pipes for sewers and paving roads, a decent living, but it was never enough.

Roger Wendlick

Anything after house payment and basic expenses for living would go toward buying books. I would have to work 10 to 12 hours a day, normally six days a week, some summers I wouldn't take a day off, just so that I could work and have a little better check so maybe I could get that next book, or make that other credit card payment, because I was now beyond my means.

Jeremy Goldstein

At one point, Roger had 12 credit cards.

Roger Wendlick

And then, of course, I had a house I could refinance, which I did three times. I don't know how to explain it, exactly. But if there was a book out there that I didn't have, I would find the means to acquire it. When you get something of the 18th, 19th century, you open up the book, and you look at the discoloration of the pages, and the smell, and that's when you really feel the true energy of history, not what you would read, but you've got more senses than just your eyes. You can smell. You can feel. You can touch.

Jeremy Goldstein

This actually points to one of the strangest things about Roger's relationship with his collection. He knew all about the different Lewis and Clark books, marbled and papers, obscure hand-tinted plates, and the value of original boards. But Roger never became an expert on what was inside the books. He didn't collect books to read them. He just wanted to own them. It turns out that your life can be changed by books you didn't even read.

In fact, Roger had never been a reader of books. He didn't read books as a kid. He didn't go to college. And his reading habits didn't change as an adult, when his house was full of books. As a collector, Roger was undeterred and he was methodical. But after 10 years, one book still eluded him. It's the cornerstone of any serious Lewis and Clark collection, a first edition copy of the first official account of the expedition. It's a two-volume set published in 1814. Fewer than 1,500 copies were ever printed. But the price tag, often around $10,000, had always scared Roger off. Then in 1994, he took a $49 flight to Los Angeles for the LA book fair.

Roger Wendlick

That particular day, I got there early. And then there was somewhat of a race when they opened up the gate. They would actually have to stand, slow down, slow down, don't run. It was like kids running for the opening of a carnival. I sauntered just casually, I didn't run, to William Reese's booth, and introduced myself. Oh yeah, Hi Roger.

And I says, did you bring anything about Lewis and Clark with you? And he turned and looked toward the glass case, and there sits a two-volume set of 1814 Lewis and Clark journals. And this set was beautiful. And I was just shaking. I wanted the set so bad. And I looked at him and I says, what's the price? Bill said, $12,500. I was crushed. I knew it was beyond me.

So as I kind of backed away and started to walk away from the booth, just knowing, shaking my head to myself, I can't afford them, there's no way I can get-- I've got to have this set of books, somehow I've gotta-- I can't afford these books, I can't, there's no way, I gotta have this set of books, how the hell can I do it, geez, I better go to the bar. I walked to the bar, got a shot of scotch.

I walked back to the booth with my scotch in hand, and I says, can I look at those again? And Bill, yeah, sure. Took them off the shelf, set them on the counter. He says, well, Roger, what can you afford? I says, I don't know. I says, we're not working. This is a slow time of the year. I might be able to do $1,000 a month. But ah, Bill, you know, we're not working now. I don't know, maybe in May or June. You know, when we start working overtime.

And he said, well, do you want them? And I said, yeah, but, gosh, I can't-- And before I could finish the conversation, Mr. Reese had turned around and took these books, put them in the bag, wrapped them up, turned around, put out his hand and shook my hand and said, that sounds good enough to me.

Jeremy Goldstein

The 1814 became Roger's calling card. It established him as an expert in all things written about Lewis and Clark. And then something happened. Roger started to read his books. Before this, he'd occasionally pull out a book and read a random passage, but now he started to plow through whole books front to back.

Roger Wendlick

Now it's my time to study the books. Let's look at this book that's in front of me. I've got it open to-- just by chance-- a passage that brings a lot of pleasure to me, is the fact that--

Jeremy Goldstein

The passage comes about halfway through the expedition. After 18 months of looking for a route to the ocean, they finally reach the Pacific.

Roger Wendlick

And here they finally-- "We are in view of the ocean, this great Pacific ocean, which we have so long anxious to see. The roaring and the noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores may be heard distinctly. Ocean in view! O! The joy!" So in this passage, place yourself on the banks of the Columbia River, looking out toward the ocean. I mean, I'd be jumping up and down screaming, where is that gill of whiskey? Which they didn't have at that time, unfortunately. I mean, they would have taken a gallon and all chugged it, and they'd have just been sloshed on the banks and just partyin' forever. I mean, it's great. What a feeling of success. It just brings a great pleasure myself. "Ocean in view! O! The joy!"

Jeremy Goldstein

Last week, Roger made a pilgrimage of sorts to see, for the first time, the original handwritten journals that Lewis and Clark kept during their expedition. They're the books that everything Roger ever bought are descended from. Most of the journals are stored at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. They're in remarkable condition. As a librarian turned the books crisp pages for Roger, flipping past detailed maps and intricate drawings of animals, Roger barely moved or spoke.

Librarian

Lewis and Clark's map of Great Falls of the Columbia. And you're seeing it upside-down, the Columbia.

Jeremy Goldstein

At one point, Roger asked, could he touch them? He was told no. And after less than an hour with the journals, we wandered back into the library's main reading room.

Roger Wendlick

The book has altered my life from being a manual labor to being a scholar of knowledge from the interior of the book. Stephen Beckham, a professor at Lewis & Clark, once said, well, Roger, you can't put yourself down for being a construction foreman. He said, that's a school of another type. He says, I love school and I love education. And he says, and now that you're entering that field with us, I have great respect for what you've done and what you know. And it makes me feel great.

Jeremy Goldstein

In the years since Roger began collecting, the value of all things Lewis and Clark has soared. Stephen Ambrose wrote a popular book, Undaunted Courage. Ken Burns did a documentary. These fueled the fire. And last fall, Roger arranged for a Lewis & Clark College in Portland to purchase his entire collection for what amounts to a small fortune. He promptly retired from construction at the age of 54.

Roger Wendlick

I just smiled. I just smiled. And I walked in, sat down, leaned back in the chair, and thought, wow, a whole new life. I don't have an alarm clock now. I mean, I've got one, but it's not in use. When my body says to get up in the morning, I get up. I stretch, do some light exercises, have a nice relaxing breakfast. Any of those in construction industry now listening to this, eat your hearts out.

Jeremy Goldstein

Most of Roger's days are now spent in the library of Lewis & Clark college, where Doug Erickson is the chief archivist. Roger's known him for years.

Doug Erickson

You know, Roger would oftentimes get off of work when he was still working construction, and not even clean up and come over to Lewis and Clark and spend time with me. And we'd chat and talk about books. But he was tired. He was very tired, and he looked like he'd just gone through a hard day of labor on a construction site. Now you see Roger, he strolls in sometime in the morning, whenever he feels like it. He walks in feeling like a king.

Roger Wendlick

And then I usually go up to the Heritage Room, and I just sit there and immerse myself into that. And of course, I'm surrounded by the books. It's a wonderful feeling being in there.

Doug Erickson

And he goes up there and he works. And every couple of-- oh, every hour or two, he'll come down all excited, Doug, you gotta come up here and see this. And I'll come upstairs, and he'll show me something and we'll get excited about it. And as I see him in the Heritage Room for many years to come, writing books and having people coming and talk to him, and just enjoying the rest of his life.

Ira Glass

That story by Jeremy Goldstein, a television producer in New York City.

Act Four. Little Sod Houses For You And Me.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Little Sod houses For You and Me. When you really love a book, what exactly are you supposed to do with that feeling after you finish reading the book, and then perhaps finish reading about the book? If you feel strongly enough about the book, I think there is this impulse to somehow get closer to the book, to somehow try and conjure the world of the book right here in the real world somehow. So if you read about a Broadway playwright, maybe you move to New York City and start writing plays. Or if you already live in New York City, but the book takes place somewhere else, you head out there. Meghan Daum has this story.

Meghan Daum

I'm moving to Nebraska. No one understands why. I've lived in New York City for seven years, which is essentially all of my adult life. And a few months ago, I started making plans to head out west, not all the way west to California or Oregon, which people from around here might understand, but to the Great Plains. I wanted to move someplace flat and treeless, some place that gives off a sense of how big this country used to be before automobiles and the jet age, before you could be cavalier about traveling from one place to another.

There are a lot of reasons behind my move, but one of the reasons has to do with a book, with nine books, as a matter of fact. They're the books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her childhood as a pioneer girl on the vast Midwestern prairie in the late 1800s. When I was a little girl growing up nearly 100 years later in the 1970s, I wanted to be like Laura so much that I made my mother sew me a sunbonnet, which I wore constantly.

Like Laura, I wore my hair in braids. Before I knew how to write, I drew picture books featuring the entire Ingalls family. It was always a variation on the same theme, a family moves to a new home, encounters hardships, and through a particular combination of self-reliance and hard work, makes a life for themselves in the new place, a place so remote, so unsettled, so cold, that no civilization, not even most Indians, had ever dared to live there.

To me, this kind of uncharted life was the best kind to have. And it was even better that it required a sunbonnet.

[SOUNDS OF HORSE-DRAWN WAGON]

Tim Sullivan

She taught at three schools. The first one was the Brewster School, and that's where Almanzo would take her down and pick her up. It was about 12 miles to the southwest.

Meghan Daum

I'm in De Smet, South Dakota, riding a horse-drawn wagon around the actual land that the Ingalls lived on. Our tour guide is Tim Sullivan. Tim and his wife Joan own the 154 acres of land that Laura's father, Charles Ingalls, claimed in 1880 is part of the Homestead Act.

Tim Sullivan

This is an old trapper's cabin that we're going to fix up. We haven't gotten it done, but that's the only thing we haven't gotten done.

Meghan Daum

A lot of people think the Ingalls are from Walnut Grove, Minnesota, because that's where the television series was set. But in fact, they only lived there for a few years. Laura came to De Smet in 1879, when she was 12. It was where she grew up, became a school teacher, and met and married Almanzo Wilder. Six of her books are set there.

For those who remember, it's the place where Laura and her sister, Mary, who was blind, got lost in the tall, wet grasses known as the Big Slough. It's the place where the family survived the long winter, and it was the place she always considered home.

Tim Sullivan

So when she talks about walking through the cool ground, just walking to prairie school, if you see when we're going home, it's wet there, that's why it would have been cool.

Meghan Daum

There's a certain kind of town that is defined solely by one industry, like steel towns, where at least one member of every family works in the mill. De Smet is sort of like that, too, except the industry is a series of books.

Every year for the past 29 years, the townspeople have put on a pageant based on Laura's life. Just about everyone in this town of 1,200 has participated in the pageant, or at least had one family member who has put on 1889-style clothing at one time or another and given tours at the museum, or given some hapless tourist directions to the cemetery, where caravans of family cars wind around the grounds looking for the burial sites of Charles, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, and Grace Ingalls. Almost every establishment in De Smet, even the local bar, has restrooms labeled Ma and Pa.

But even though De Smet is, for all intents and purposes, a tourist town, it doesn't feel like one. Instead, it feels like a town with a hobby, a place where a lot of people devote a lot of time to one particular idea. The tourists, though they're greeted in that typically warm Midwestern way, feel almost incidental to the larger cause of celebrating Laura.

I talked to a man who had acted in the pageant for 27 years, missing only two performances the whole time, one of them because of a combine accident in which he lost his finger, and his son was impaled and almost died. He was back on stage the next night. His wife, Eldina, had driven them to the hospital and witnessed a pretty gory series of medical procedures performed, by the way, without anesthesia. The night of the accident, her husband had one request of her.

Eldina

He says, honey, you have to go on. I was playing Ma at the time. And so I did perform that night. And I think I was probably in shock myself, because it went fairly well. But it was on Sunday night is where I kind of fell apart. I forgot a few lines, but we made it.

Meghan Daum

Laura's books have a lot to do with the notion of rising to the occasion. And the pageant demands countless hours of volunteer effort, cooperation, and manual labor done without complaint. In a way, this kind of idyllic, romantic work ethic is not what I expected when I came to De Smet. Or I should say it is what I expected, and that's what took me by surprise.

Traditionally in a story like this, the writer goes to the place she's dreamt of and finds that it's not like what she imagined at all. But the remarkable thing about De Smet that is that it really is the little town on the prairie. The people are a bit like the people in Laura's books. They're proud of the land they live on. And in a strange way, it's as if Laura's powers of description have affected the way they talk about the place.

Marian Cramer

And it's beautiful out here on the prairie this evening, looking at the Big Slough. Herd of cattle over there. I think it looks just like it did in Laura's day. Now the building's on the other side, but the Big Slough is the same. I like the way the blackbirds swing in the reeds, the way the cattails bloom, the puddles of water. Sometimes ducks and geese come in and land.

Meghan Daum

Marian Cramer is the author of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. We're sitting at a picnic table on the Ingalls Homestead. A busy day of tourism is winding down. Visitors are getting back in their minivans. Tim Sullivan's eight-year-old son, Brian, is assembling his costume for the pageant dress rehearsal. Marian is 65.

Meghan Daum

So how much different was your life from Laura's when you were reading these books?

Marian Cramer

Well, I guess my childhood was before electricity, before running water. And I lived on a working farm, and there were chores, there was responsibility. A lot of the same. That's why I like the Laura books so well, because Laura had to do the same things I had to do. We had cattle and hogs and sheep, and we grew wheat and corn. It was a wonderful time. Family was very important. And life seemed simpler then, because we didn't do so many things and go so much. But I'm not sure that it was.

Meghan Daum

Do you remember when you first got electricity and water?

Marian Cramer

Oh yes.

Meghan Daum

And what was that like?

Marian Cramer

It was just lovely. Electricity came in '48. And they had been working for a long time putting the lines in. And finally the lines were all in, and they were all hooked up. They were just waiting for the major flow of energy. And then the electricity was on. And it was the first time. And that night, as it got dark, I remember my father and my mother and my sister and one of my older brothers, we stood there and looked, because suddenly it wasn't a black country anymore. We could see our neighbors' lights. It made it seem a lot less lonesome, a lot less isolated.

Meghan Daum

Marian was a music teacher for many years before becoming a pioneer school teacher on the Ingalls Homestead. Every day, she hangs out in the one-room schoolhouse, which looks exactly the way Laura describes her classroom at to Brewster School in her book, These Happy Golden Years. Marian gives brief music and math lessons to the tourists, and then has the class read a quote from Laura off the blackboard. The quote goes something like, "It's best to be truthful and honest and make the best of what we have." Somehow it sounds revelatory.

The prairie is the only place I've been to in my life where you can make the simplest, sweetest, even, I dare say, most cliched statement about the virtues of a simple life, and it sounds like anything but a cliche. It's as if the wind, which barrels through here like a wild animal, just knocks the irony out of everything. After a long day working at the Ingalls Homestead, Joan Sullivan, Tim's wife, walks me down to the edge of the Big Slough. The grass is taller than we are, and it's easy to see how Mary and Laura could have gotten lost here.

Joan Sullivan

You know, there's still some honesty in the world. And that's what Laura talked about, it's good to be truthful and honest and to do what's right. And that's, I guess, what being-- being here isn't always easy. It's a lot of hard work, and you wonder, will the whole thing work out, to be able to keep it running? But there's something about taking those morals and passing that on to a family.

Meghan Daum

Do you think that has to do with farming? Or do you think it's something about the time that Laura was living in? Or a combination of those?

Joan Sullivan

Probably a combination of those, trying to make an honest dollar. A farmer works hard. They feed the world.

Man

Why, hello. I'm glad so many of you have come to our little town on the prairie in De Smet. This is especially fine country, this prairie. At this time of the year, this is the hour that daylight softens and twilight falls. Oh, please forgive me. Sometimes I get a little carried away.

Meghan Daum

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant runs for three weekends each summer. Admission is $5. About 700 people come each night. It's held right in the middle of the prairie, on land adjacent to the Ingalls Homestead. From the pageant site, you can see the five cottonwood trees that Pa planted. "One for each of my girls," he said, meaning Ma and his four daughters.

The dialogue in the pageant has been prerecorded. When the pageant is actually performed, the cast members lip sync the words and pantomime the action. This technique has its benefits and its perils. During the first performance this year, the actor playing Pa missed his cue, and his words came booming down onto the stage even though he wasn't there. The actors playing Mary and Laura and Ma carried on, talking to an invisible Pa like he was the voice of God.

Ingalls Daughter

Pa, is it on Indian land, or land we'll have to move from?

Pa

Not on Indian land, my pretty girl. This is surveyed land, just waiting for us to call it home.

Laura Ingalls

I want a place that's open, where I can run with the wind.

Pa

Lots of room, Laura.

Ingalls Daughter

It'll be the Ingalls Homestead. Doesn't that sound fine?

Meghan Daum

I am completely charmed by this pageant. Yes, there are mistakes. Yes, you can hear places on the soundtrack where the tape been edited. But all I can think as I watch these people on stage, many of them farmers, retired farmers, and their wives and kids of farmers, is how effectively they capture the feeling of the book. They're not selling anything. There's no agenda other than to celebrate Laura, and the fact that she cared enough about this town to write these books about it.

It's dusk on the prairie, literally. That doesn't sound like something you'd say in earnest. It sounds like a lyric in some cowboy folk song, or a particularly bad line in a romance novel. But it's not. It is simply dusk on the prairie. Little girls in sweaters and pants from the Gap are wearing sunbonnets and standing on the benches to get a better look. Fathers with fussy babies stroll around the fields so their wives can watch the pageant undisturbed. An eight-year-old girl in sneakers and jeans runs through the grass, the wind whipping through her hair, her sunbonnet flying out behind her.

The pageant is a huge hit. When the show's over, the audience storms the stage to get the autographs of cast members. People are saying it's the best thing they've ever seen, that this trip to De Smet is the best vacation they've ever had. It's remarkable, really, that in a time when families can take vacations to Disney World, or visit Great Adventure, or even just stay home and watch TV, people will travel all the way to South Dakota to see a world that's described in a series of books.

The Ingalls family managed to make homes for themselves in some of the most unforgiving conditions imaginable, in a cabin in the deep woods, in the banks of a creek, in a shanty surrounded by hundreds of flat, empty acres. But no matter where they lived, Pa played his fiddle, Ma did her sewing, and Laura managed to find delight in the world around her.

Maybe that ability to merge the indoors and the outdoors, the familiar and the unfamiliar, is what all these people are responding to. Maybe that's why there's so much romance in the whole notion of a cabin stuck out in the middle of nowhere. People want to find comfort in an inherently uncomfortable place. They want to see if they can make it through the long winter and still see the beauty in the snow.

Ira Glass

Meghan Daum leaves New York City in two weeks to move to Nebraska.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today but Julie Snyder and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachman, Starlee Kine, and Sylvia Lemus. Musical help from Marika Partridge and Terry Hecker.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Of you know, you can listen to most of our programs for free, on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who wanders into our workspace looking at all the new stuff we've bought and asks,

Roger Wendlick

What-- What d-- What-- How-- What's the price?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Roger Wendlick

O! The joy!

Announcer

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