Jul 14, 2010

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Again

There’s an odd pleasure to be had from reading other people’s letters, particularly historical correspondence that captures both a character and an era. I relearned this today over at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library over in West Branch, Iowa, where I spent several hours reading years of letters between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

Yes, that Laura Ingalls Wilder. The author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Although calling her “the” author takes some of the credit away from Rose, who’s widely believed to have been her mother’s ghostwriter and, based on the correspondence I read today, years earlier also functioned as her mother’s editor and writing coach.

That’s what brought me to the library. Sort of. Initially I became interested last summer at the Hoover Days festival, when a representative from the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Burr Oak, Iowa, (one of about five such places sprinkled throughout the Midwest, one in each place she ever lived) told me her daughter Rose’s papers were archived at the Hoover Library and that they included the ur-manuscript of all the Little House books, which Rose had divvied up and shaped into the series. Rose had been a biographer and friend of the former president; that’s why her papers are there.

All year, I’ve been planning to go the library to compare the original text against the final versions, mostly for my own edification as a nonfiction writer, editor and teacher. And then over the past few months, I’ve found other reasons for wanting to go, too. I’ve been considering doing some ghostwriting work—of which there’s a lot in L.A. right now, what with so many celebrity memoirs getting snapped up by publishers looking for big sales figures—and so am interested in how the Laura/Rose mother-daughter team collaborated on Laura’s life stories.

Also, I’ve been having a really tough time lately selling Eden on the merits of reading. Her reading level is appropriate for her grade, even a little above, but she just isn’t interested in chapter books at all. I’m on a campaign this summer to try to get her involved in stories, preferably in a series for children, and so I thought of starting with the Little House books, which I devoured when I was about her age. I seriously thought I was the reincarnation of Laura and even took to wearing a bonnet around the house. It didn’t hurt that I looked like Melissa Gilbert in the TV series (or so everyone used to say). At some point I wrote a letter to Rose, unaware that she’d already died, and received a typed letter in return that, naturally, I thought had been written especially for me even as my mother tried to explain what “form letter” meant.

So, back to the library. I showed up around 1:30 p.m. with two hours to spend, thinking I’d ask just to see the manuscript that developed into Little House in the Big Woods, which Eden and I are about to finish together, and to come back another day to look at the correspondence between Laura and Rose. But the librarian, Matt, convinced me to look at the whole collection which, I soon discovered, will take me about, oh, four years to read in full. He wheeled out six fat legal envelopes full of files—about four linear feet of material—most of it Xeroxed from the originals, and then ran back to retrieve the original manuscript of The First Four Years, the last book in her series. It’s kept wrapped in a complicated folder and was handwritten on grocery store writing tablets. He had to put on a pair of white gloves to handle it. I simultaneously thought, What the hell? and felt like crying from the sheer awe of it. Sort of how I once felt upon seeing handwritten royal decrees from the Middle Ages on display in the British Museum reading room, or a letter penned by Virginia Woolf in a manuscript museum.

For the next two hours I became completely absorbed in letters Laura wrote to her husband back in Missouri (Almanzo--remember the hunk who played him in the TV series?) when she went to visit Rose in San Francisco in 1915 by taking the train across the country, and then attended the Pacific International Exposition, as well as a few exchanges in which Rose encouraged Laura to write magazine articles about farm life and heavily edited her first attempt at publication. Rose secured Laura a $150 fee from Country Gentlemen for a her first published piece, about kitchen renovation. (I kid you not.)

But my favorite paragraph comes from a letter Rose wrote to her mother before that cross-country trip in 1915. Here it is:

“I bet the letter you wrote for grandma and Mary about your getting started to writing could be put verbatim into that “story of my life” thing. If I were you I’d have them save it and send it back, and I’d look at it with that viewpoint and see if I’m not right. I bet it’s better than you could do trying to write it for the story.”

“That ‘story of my life’ thing”--is that not the understatement of the day? A dozen books and millions of dollars in royalties later: yes. It was definitely quite the thing.

Jul 12, 2010

The Blue Bicycle

I’ve been in Iowa for a solid week now, time enough for quite a few things to happen. I could write about the amount of rain that’s come down on us in the past eight days; or how the Iowa River is at grass level in City Park and threatening to flood; or about how happy I am to be a pedestrian again for much of the day; or about the three-day road trip to Missouri that Eden and I just took to visit Maya at camp.

But what I really want to write about is my new sky-blue bicycle.

Eden and I found at a garage sale for $25 the day we arrived, and it’s precisely the bicycle I was looking for. Vintage, retro, recycled, the kind of bicycle that makes me happy just to look at but won’t send me into paroxysm of panic and guilt if it’s stolen. When I brought it to a bike shop in town that specializes in vintage items, they fixed the rear spokes and gave me a wider set of handlebars for a $29.41 bill, labor included. This is the bargain of the decade, folks.

All these years that I lived in Iowa City and have been coming back for summers, I’ve never biked around town. As a graduate student I had an early mountain bike (circa about 1987) and would sometimes go for long trips out in the country, riding past cornfields for hours. But to get to class or just around town? No. It’s kind of mystifying in retrospect, actually. Why didn’t I ever consider biking a valid form of transportation? Only now, twenty years later, am I discovering that a whole new world opens up to you when you cruise along at 12 mph.

For one thing, you make fast friends with the people at bike repair shops. When I brought the bike in on Tuesday to drop it off for repairs, the woman over at 30th Century Bikes—super short hair, piercings, tank top, tattoos, very friendly, the epitome of hip—confirmed my suspicion that this blue cruiser is, actually, just a little too small for a 5’8” person like me. But we agreed it was worth trying to make it work.

“It’s exactly the bicycle I was looking for,” I told her. “And how often in life do you find exactly what you want?”

She nodded. Possibly considered I might be pathetic for saying such a thing, but generally looked like she agreed. Then we debated the merits of replacing the tires this year or next. We decided next. She showed me how to date a bicycle by looking for an inscription on the wheel hub. Mine said 1950 but she explained that sometimes the rest of the bicycle is a few years newer than its wheel hub. The bike says Montgomery Ward on the frame (how fabulous is that?) and we discussed that it might have come from the catalog. Whee—I was learning a lot.

On the way back home (walking, this time) I stopped in Uptown Bill's Coffee Bar on Gilbert St. How is it possible that I’ve been coming to Iowa City since 1989 and never knew about this place? It’s like stepping into a time capsule, including the three tough guys reading the day’s paper at the square linoleum tables. The only tipoff that it’s 2010 is the espresso machine behind the counter.

I wandered into the used bookstore in the back—only in Iowa City would you find a random used bookstore in the back of a vintage coffeeshop—and B. came back to see if I needed any help. I noticed the NY tattoo on his forearm, and asked if he was a Yankees fan. Turns out he’s not, but he was a New York City homicide cop for 27 years before moving to Iowa. There’s bound to be a story there, but he didn’t want to tell all of it and it wasn’t my place to ask for the details. Sometimes being a writer means knowing which questions to ask, and sometimes it means knowing when to back off. So we talked about a dozen other things for the next half hour and then on a back shelf I found a copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which I’d been looking for since May. This pleased me to no end, and I bought it and promised B. I’d come back later in the week.

The bicycle was ready on Thursday, so after I dropped Eden off at camp I walked over to pick it up. When I walked by Uptown Bill’s B. was outside sweeping the sidewalk, so I stopped to tell him this reminded me of all the doormen in New York after a big snow, and then we talked about New York for another 20 minutes before I remembered that I was expected at the bike shop. So in the interest of time I took a shortcut the back way, through an empty alley and parking lot.

As I was walking south through the parking lot toward the shop, a man in an electric wheelchair came cruising north along the sidewalk on my left. Iowa City is something of a mecca for the physically and mentally disabled: it’s mostly flat, very accessible, and has a noticeably high number of group homes around town. You routinely see groups of disabled teens walking through downtown or the indoor malls with aides accompanying them. This particular man appeared to have some kind of palsy and he was alone. It was just the two of us back there. I watched him steer his wheelchair toward a break in the curb that sloped toward the parking lot…and from my angle I could see the opening was too narrow for his chair to fit through.

That’s when I started running in his direction.

What happened next happened fast. He turned the chair around backwards to back down the slope, but his left wheels caught on the curb, and instead of making a smooth transition down the slope the chair tipped wildly in my direction, as if it was going to dump him onto the asphalt. I stuck my hands out to catch him, but I was still too far away and running fast. Yet somehow, somehow, the chair righted itself. I swear to god, it felt as if my hands somehow pushed him back upright, even though
I was still a good fifteen feet away when it happened.

“That was close,” I told him, when I finally made it to his chair.

“That was close,” he repeated. His speech was garbled, but mostly intelligible.“Thank you for that.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Have a nice day!” he shouted, as he zipped away north.

I stood there for a moment, struck by the random encounter. Was it really random? A butterfly flaps its wings in China and…well, we all know that story by now. But here’s another one: a homicide cop in New York quits his job and a woman finds the book she’s been searching for for months. Or a woman buys the perfect $25 sky-blue bicycle in Iowa City, and by some strange twist of fate a man in a wheelchair therefore won’t tumble out onto the pavement alone and have to lie there without help.

I really think we’re all connected somehow, in an intricate matrix of interdependent relationships. And I have the feeling this blue bicycle is going to be the catalyst for some very unusual and interesting times. I just do.