Sky Island 1912 CoverAlthough we’re anxious to get back to the world of Oz, it’s essential that we stop and consider the second Trot and Cap’n Bill novel, Sky Island. Although it’s nominally a sequel to the previous year’s The Sea Fairies, most fans and scholars view it very differently. Sky Island represents a tipping point: it’s the last non-Oz fantasy novel Baum ever wrote, and it already shows him drifting back to familiar characters from that world. There are aspects of it that also come to typify the later Oz books, and although the book was not a commercial success, Baum clearly viewed it as a critical one. 

Have you read Sky Island? If not, start your flight of fancy here . . . . 

IMG_5101I know a nice place to start with this, says Nick. Even though this novel was in no way available to me when I was a child, I am in fact well overdue for reading it, for one particularly special reason. Turning to the inscription, I see: “To my best friend, Nick, on occasion of his twenty-third birthday…”

That was a while ago!

Argh, so true. I have had this book for longer than I care to think. I do remember beginning it, back in 2004, and finding it everything I expected The Sea Fairies to be. I was quite looking forward to it when we decided to read it for the blog – but I know you had read it all the way through before. What were your memories and expectations?

IMG_20170530_092003I have read it before, says Sarah. Just once, I think, because my library had a copy of Sea Fairies but not Sky Island. I couldn’t read it until I was significantly older, when a family friend gave me a copy – and that’s the copy you now hold in your hand. Yeah! It was on my shelf for a few years.

Ah! That’s so lovely. Thank you, Sarah.

You’re welcome. I know I’ve read that copy, but reading the book again for this blog, I didn’t remember much about it. I only remembered the most obvious things, like that there was a war between the Blues and the Pinks; that Button-Bright and his magic umbrella played a large role; that there was a cameo appearance by another Oz character, which we’ll no doubt talk about later. Mostly, I just remembered it as a much better book than The Sea Fairies! Sky Island was a proper book, much more like an Oz book, whereas The Sea Fairies wasn’t about anything at all. That’s my main memory.

It is really striking. I read one directly after the other; I think I finished one and started the next the same day. The Sea Fairies just felt so unformed and improvised, with a sort of deus ex sea serpent at the end. But Sky Island feels like it’s the only book I’ve ever read of Baum’s that he actually planned before he began writing!

It’s startling how organized Sky Island feels when compared to most, if not all, of his books up to this point. Something I noticed was that I was never aware of the usual mental arithmetic where I can break a Baum book into three distinct parts: beginning, middle, and end, with an obvious drop-off at a certain point – an obvious moment where he decided to just give up and do whatever came to mind. The whole story feels pretty continuous, with very rare exception, and that’s a pleasant surprise.

So many of Baum’s earlier novels feel as if they could have been made up night by night, for a child’s bedtime. This one seems to have an actual structure behind it, and I must say, it really doesn’t hurt.

Revolution 1912

The importance of structure even comes across in the fog bank between the countries of the Blues and the Pinks. There are some random giant animals –

. . . Yes, including a constellation! Cancer, which has fallen from the sky!

John R. Neill (1912)

I’d forgotten that. Yet even that scene, that surreal interval, seems to have a structural importance; it’s a barrier between two cultures that are very carefully described and deliberately different in terms of their political ideology. That suggests the book wasn’t just a flight of fancy for Baum, but that he felt he had something that he wanted to work out, on his own, about power.

Yes. This is the first book since The Marvelous Land of Oz where everything – or mostly everything – seems deliberately satirical: so much so, in fact, that I found myself trying to do a little bit of research to figure out what could possibly be motivating it. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with much. Exceptionally little has been written about the two “Trot and Cap’n Bill” books – less, even, than earlier non-Oz Baum fantasies like Queen Zixi of Ix. With the various criticisms of governing leaderes in this book, I even checked to see who the American president was at the time, but it was Taft – and Taft was a generally well-liked if ineffectual president. (I had been thinking of the notoriously corrupt Warren G. Harding, but he wasn’t for another ten years.) I’m not sure what specifically Baum is referring to in Sky Island, but there’s got to be something; for the first time in a long time, it feels like he’s writing very pointed material.

Yeah, I think so too. It’s very pointed and it’s quite deliberately, unpatronizingly addressed to a child audience, in a way that’s more conscious and more thought through than, say, The Sea Fairies. That novel felt rather unconcerned, almost disdainful in terms of what it provided to its audience. It was just a bit of fun, really.


You were looking at political leaders – but a lot of the stuff that happens with the Pinks is a satire on citizenship. It’s not the story of a demagogue, so much as a story of the dangers of democratic process gone crazy. At least that’s the reading I got from the article you sent me (Richard Tuerk’s “‘S’pose you jus’ call yourself the Boss?’: Governance in Sky Island,” from The Baum Bugle, Autumn 2012).

John R. Neill (1912)

I don’t disagree with that. I just think the most pointed satire in the book happens when they meet “Tourmaline, the Poverty Queen,” who is presented as an agent of that democracy and nothing else. She lives in the least auspicious circumstances, unable to enjoy wealth or glamour of any kind, and that just seems to me to be commenting on those who tout their riches too much. Actually, thinking about it: this might be about the Russian Revolution of 1905, at least in the abstract. Much of the conflict of the time was about ethnic groups being kept from voting, worker’s groups being kept from unionizing, and unsurprisingly, a lot of dissatisfaction over upper-class privilege. Tsar Nicholas II remained in power until 1917, but in 1912, the engine to depose him was already in motion.

John R. Neill (1912)

Could be. In the use of the phrase “poverty queen,” it may also be about people who feel their right to rule is endorsed through their “man of the people” status, where their ideology is endorsed by their lack of wealth. A fetishization of the working class.

That’s populism. In essence, it’s what just put Donald Trump in office – his vocabulary, his point of view, is emphasized as being “of the people”: the working class instead of the elites. We’ve had populist American presidents before, too – most notably, Andrew Jackson. (I’ve been to his house. They can show you a book with pictures in it.)

For me, the novel feels quite specifically about the responsibility of the citizen to recognize or agitate against a bad ruler if they’re in place (like the Boolooroo) or to recognize a system that isn’t working (like the Poverty Queen). Whether rulers are victims of malfunctioning democracy, or manipulating it, the real subject seems to be the influence and responsibility of the voter. That actually puts the child in a very empowering role, because of the change Trot manages to bring about. But maybe we should save that, and start at the beginning?

Boys Just Want to Have Fun

I get a stronger sense of who Trot is in this book, certainly, than I did the previous one.

Well, I still don’t feel that he’s doing much heavy lifting in terms of defining her world at the beginning, but if we compare it with the set-up in the Oz books, Trot’s secure, conventional home and family distinguish her only a little from Dorothy. The major difference is that Dorothy generally ends up in Oz unwillingly and longs to get home, while Trot and her pals want to quit their humdrum life, run off, and have an adventure.

Baum may just be acquiescing to his readers. By this point, there’s such a thing as “the yearly Baum book”; it’s an expected event, and people would be lining up to buy it. Trot represents the eager child reader who is always ready to go on another adventure with Baum.

I really like that as a starting point for the whole story, though: “Let’s go over there, let’s go for that thing on the horizon.” Button-Bright is another person who doesn’t want to go home before he’s had a proper adventure – somehow, somewhere, anywhere he can. That’s quite a fun change, really, and a lot more pioneering than simple escapism.

Sky Island 1912 Illo 1
John R. Neill (1912)

I know you’ve mentioned her a few times before, sometimes in tangents that didn’t always make it to the published blog, but I was strongly reminded of E. Nesbit’s children’s books and how her protagonists are almost always out looking for adventures. I found myself wondering, “This is 1912. Could Baum actually have read some Nesbit by this point?”

That’s a really interesting thought. I love Nesbit, and her depiction of children is the bit where she has a real edge over Baum. They tend to be very real people, often quite a long way from the Victorian ideal of how children should be presented. Baum’s children tend to be slightly wreathed in glory more than they are just hapless people growing up. Button-Bright’s umbrella feels quite Nesbit because it’s so shabby. Baum keeps saying how unfashionable it is; there’s something quite nice and dowdy about that, and maybe that’s what I think of as key to British fantasy – something other people would overlook, like a shabby old carpet, a sandpit, or the stuff in the junk shop in The Story of the Amulet. It seems very Nesbit to find a spark of enchantment in that.

This book includes a supporting role for Button-Bright, and a significant cameo for Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter, both of whom originated in The Road to Oz four years earlier. I didn’t really bat an eye at that when I was a kid, but my question to you is – why? Why are they here, and more to the point, why are they here when they’re both so completely changed from the characters we met before?

Well, I think you’ve answered your own question better than I could. This isn’t really Button-Bright returning, it’s someone who happens to have his name and his memories but is a completely new person. Basically, it’s product placement for a previous book.

I expected him to say “Don’t know” more often…

. . . Or even once!

John R. Neill (1912)

Yeah. It’s impossible to read about his magic umbrella now and not think of Mary Poppins, even though it’s 50 years before the Disney film. That image of her descending on her magic umbrella is indelibly burned in the brains of a couple of generations. It may even be why I misread that line from The World of Oz, where I thought it was Sky Island being made into the film and not Sea Fairies. In my mind’s eye, I can so much more easily see a film of Sky Island – or at least something resembling it.

Absolutely. I think it’s rather modern, too, that this novel has two child protagonists – a boy and a girl – and that Button-Bright is slightly hapless compared to Trot’s “Go ahead!” attitude. She really doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody in this novel, whereas he’s always in the wrong place. I like that, and I think that’s the idea, basically: to have both of them as the heroes, sharing star billing. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Button-Bright had been in Underworld Island (or whatever the unwritten third Trot book would have been), maybe even replacing Cap’n Bill.

You know, this is basically the same cast makeup as Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. There’s a plucky girl, a resourceful boy, a tricky but kind older man, and at least one talking animal. It’s done better here, though, I think.

Everything about these characters is better than Dorothy and the Wizard, though, where about half of the group hate being there – anywhere! What’s not an improvement on that? It feels like a formula developed by Baum to have an older male who is, in some way, not typical, and to have a couple of young protagonists who, again, don’t really conform to what you expect from boys and girls in adventure stories. I don’t really mind, but it’s clearly chasing particular demographics. Nowadays, it’s a publishing truism that boys don’t read books with girl’s protagonists but girls do read books with boy protagonists . . . .

There’s been quite a bit of academic interest in that.

This study seems to have had a lot of interest recently, although personally I find the way it frames its questions somewhat dubious.

John R. Neill (1912)

Here in 1912 we’re moving into the golden age of children’s literature. More and more children’s books are being published, and Baum’s having to work harder. Part of that is having a young male hero in his books. What’s really cool is that Button-Bright’s not your standard male hero. He’s clumsy and fey, he’s waving an umbrella around . . . .

I suppose. I do think it’s interesting that Baum is working his way into a little bit of a pattern, which you can see if you look at his writing outside of Oz. By this point, he’s doing several books under pseudonym that are roughly for this age range, like The Daring Twins and The Flying Girl, both of which have a daring female protagonist with a supportive brother figure. It’s also obvious that Baum likes these older male figures who are just shy of being trickster characters. You might think of them as MacGyvers; the Wizard, the Shaggy Man, and Cap’n Bill all share a certain sort of “worldly expertise” that involves living by your wits, usually without systemized education or training. That’s quite interesting to me: Baum has now created three different characters who are all, in their ways, gentlemen of the world, and I don’t know what he’s trying to say, or what inspires him about that, except that maybe he considers himself one of their number!

Again, they don’t ascribe to any kind of masculinity or ideas of status. They’re men of the road, or working men.

John R. Neill (1912)

None of them want power. That’s not true of the Wizard until he comes back, of course, but the “returned” Wizard, Shaggy Man, and Cap’n Bill all individually reject power and seem extremely happy to remain as they are. That’s a big thing with Baum: be happy with who you are. It comes up again and again.

Cap’n Bill really is particularly ineffectual all the way through Sky Island; he doesn’t even successfully escape being rescued! But none of these characters are typically masculine heroes, and they’re always paired with a tough little girl who gets a lot more done. For me, that goes right to the heart of Matilda Gage’s influence on Baum’s worldview. He has a particular interest in depicting strong girls, and he doesn’t just show them as living in their own “little girl world”; he specifically has grown men right next to them, in exactly the same situations, who – short of occasionally whipping out a pistol, or blowing up someone – are mostly there to show off how cool the girls are. Isn’t it a shame there isn’t an older woman in these novels, though?

I question what she’d be like.

When there is an adult woman – such as Glinda, or potentially Ozma, depending how you interpret her – she tends to be pretty on top of things, far more so than any of the men. That’s a very unusual view of masculinity. I always come back to Baum being in the army and having to leave because of his heart condition, and the way people would have viewed soldiers versus men who worked in the theatre. Baum had a very a very personal investment in unmasculine men – or at least in unorthodox masculinity being valid.

Mmmhmm. Well, I think you’ve even brought up one of the odd disparities in his worldview. When an adult woman appears, it’s someone like Glinda: extremely authoritative, with a great deal of control, and a great deal of . . . well, personal responsibility.

John R. Neill (1912)

They’re quite matriarchal, aren’t they? They aren’t adventurers; you don’t have women of the road. You have queens and princesses and things. Compare Ozma with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. They’re all rulers, but only Ozma does things for her people, making actual decisions.

Right. That is one of the rare, slightly awkward gendered statements I feel like Baum makes over and over again: women are for making sure things get done. He even had interviews where he said that women should be in charge of everything. That’s nice and all, but at the same time, he’s saying that men are there to have adventures, which is a slightly inequitable trade-off: by giving them less authority, he also gives men a lot more freedom.

Run the World (Girls)

Now, everything I just said is at least somewhat upended by a character like Trot, who has adventures, enjoys having adventures, wants more adventures, and still takes time out to be the Boss of the Blues.

Like Dorothy, with her modern slang, she’s the most modern figure in the book. You get this sense of a new age beginning, and Trot and Dorothy being the women of a new generation. They shake things up. I really love everything Trot does in the last couple of chapters when she takes power. She gets a lot of great lines, and the best moment happens when she says, “Let’s abolish the patching machine!” Someone says, “Well, shouldn’t we punish the Boolooroo and his daughters?” and I thought, yep, that’s going to happen. Brace yourself, Nick. But it doesn’t. Neither she nor Baum condones it. That, for me, was a real punch-the-air moment. It so easily could have gone another way. It’s quite exciting, because Trot is proposing a new kind of solution. She’s not a conqueror and she’s not an imperialist. She’s a liberating force.

She comes in swinging, like a Chicago gangster! She’s going to be Al Capone’s new junior associate.

John R. Neill (1912)

Exactly! Don’t you get the sense that Baum really took pleasure in writing her dialogue? It’s not going through the motions at all. It’s really zesty, really funny. Things like:

“Bother the law!” exclaimed Trot. “I’ll make the laws myself from now on, and I’ll unmake every law you ever had before I conquered you.”

That’s just electric. She properly comes to life in writing. It’s really strongly felt and quite enjoyable, probably the least dated bit of Baum we’ve read since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That might be true. I agree with you, it’s very enjoyable, and Trot comes over as a more proactive child than Dorothy has been in a long time. It’s interesting to me that a man with no daughters was able to repeatedly and vividly depict a female child. Trot has such incredible gumption and a desire to stand up, be counted, and to do what’s right that Baum never undercuts. He never tries to suggest that she shouldn’t do it, that she is foolish in doing it, or that her actions will lead to negative repercussions. Trot is always presented as the one you should cheer for, and her taking charge of the situation at the end of the book is presented purely as heroism. There’s no sermonizing, there’s no E. Nesbit-style moral –

It’s not even presented as comedy.

John R. Neill (1912)

Nope. It’s just straight-up hero stuff. You can hear the surge of music behind her as she gets on in there and does her thing. Like a boss!

. . . Patting animals as she goes! One other line that I really like is a little bit earlier:

“We can make a rope ladder that will enable you to climb to the top of the wall, and then you can lower it to the other side and descend into the City. But, if anyone should see you, you would be captured.”

“I’ll risk that!” said the child . . . “Please make the rope ladder at once, Rosalie!”

That’s so different from anything you see from Dorothy in the past. It’s a real pleasure to see her getting involved. And in that moment, when Polychrome comes and pronounces judgment, it’s almost all women who are present. You’ve got Rosalie the Witch, Tourmaline the Queen, Polychrome and Trot – they’re the people with the power in that scene. It’s a life or death moment, too! Cap’n Bill and Button-Bright are lagging behind. It’s proper high fantasy drama, and it’s all women there, without any real interference. Maybe I should stop being surprised about this.

I think I’m surprised as well, just by the forthrightness of it. While we’re on surprising topics, though, did you get any sort of racial overtones to this book? As far as I know, this is the first time we’ve had explicit comment on the color of someone’s skin. It’s repeated several times. I found that surprising, too . . . not necessarily in a good way, at least at first.

Absolutely, especially given the system of government among the Pinkies where they have an incredibly bureaucratic democracy, but the ruler is whomever happens to be the palest.

John R. Neill (1912)

I was really wondering where Baum was going with the comments on skin color, until suddenly I realized he was going to let Trot control the Pinkies because of it. That was so strange, and a little unnerving. I kept looking for some sort of racial symbolism in the whole blue/pink division – you know, an overt dark-skinned vs. light-skinned metaphor, with him saying one was better than the other. I was afraid of that, and thankfully, he at least somewhat subverted my expectations. I think he brought in race more to motivate Trot’s actions later than anything else.

I think quite often we make allowances for novels of this era – we’ve had to do it a little bit before, even in this blog – and we go, “Well, you know, that was the time, there’s only a certain amount that someone can see beyond the culture of their day.” If we always apply those conditions, this is probably the most radical that I can see Baum getting. As much as there are Blues and Pinks and the Blues are “grotesque,” there is an underlying subtext that they’re all the same, and the emphasis on skin color for the Pinks – and it’s the Pinks, specifically – is subverted and shown to be little more than a weird hang-up. There’s no argument for Baum as a radical writer about race – not in the way we know him to be about gender – but he acquits himself pretty well here. He doesn’t embarrass himself.

The Patching

Sarah, as enjoyable as it is to talk about Trot deposing the Boolooroo, I think we have to talk about “the patching.”

The Blues’ punishment, you mean? They slice two criminals in half with a giant cleaving machine and “patch” the mismatched halves together.

Right. Baum’s penchant for death by slicing is foregrounded here, in a way that you and I probably take it in our stride, having read these kinds of jokes for about a year, but anyone else reading this would be fairly horrified within a couple of chapters.

John R. Neill (1912)

Yeah, I don’t think they’re alone! This was the biggest surprise for me in Sky Island, and what a nasty surprise, too. I didn’t remember a thing about it from my childhood reading  – which is shocking, as it’s so gruesome. It is, in fact, so brutal, and so violent, that I’m actually tempted to say it’s going a bit too far. Even Cap’n Bill realizes that the slicing machine “would end us, without bein’ patched,” and Button-Bright sullenly agrees. It’s very grim. In a reprise of Mr. Split from Dot and Tot of Merryland, Baum tries to say that it’s okay for the Blues themselves – it’s all a bit of an identity crisis, of course, but they go on regardless (as seen in the examples of Jimfred and Fredjim). That doesn’t make it any better to dwell on, though.

No, it doesn’t.

Having the slicing machine almost literally hang over Cap’n Bill’s head, sword of Damocles-style, for most of the final third of the book – to the point where they fumble his rescue, repeatedly rolling him out and putting him back under the blade of death, like a Looney Tunes cartoon! It was just a bit too much for my personal comfort. It’s the first time I’ve really felt uncomfortable since John Dough’s existential crisis, and this is by far the worse scenario. I think maybe it’s time for jolly old Uncle Frank to ease up on the slicing jokes.

I completely agree; I’m really hoping that he’s got it out of his system now! It’s been growing, novel to novel, and now it’s a plot point in nearly every chapter. You could say that it all goes back to the Tin Woodman and his story, so maybe it’s been there from the very beginning.

Yeah, but the Tin Woodman is presented as a fantasy transformation, at least the way the Woodman himself tells it in Wonderful Wizard. Nobody dwells on the violence. We all know what an axe can do in an accident, but Baum doesn’t linger on that detail. He lingers on the patching rather hard.

I’ve been thinking about his author’s note at the start of Wizard, where he declares it a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” Is it just us, or does he not appreciate how nightmarish this is? Is this his blind spot? Did this man not understand his own capacity for a terrifying scenario?

He must have done.

I’m reminded of Shockheaded Peter, which was published in the 1840s and may well have been popular in Baum’s day. It’s certainly still published now, and I remember finding and reading a copy as a small child in the 1980s, but its appeal to children is rather complex. Written by a German psychiatrist as a set of moral tales for wayward kids, it’s full of nightmare fuel like Shockheaded Peter himself, or the “great, long, red-legged scissorman” who comes for Conrad Suck-A-Thumb and deals with him in a series of explicit illustrations and cheerful rhymes: “Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go / And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!” Maybe there was just a different perception of physical violence back then, particularly slicing and snipping.

A hundred years ago, I think we were much less delicate about what we put in books for children. What’s interesting, to me, is that I don’t even remember most of Baum’s “death gags” – the same ones we’ve landed on so hard, repeatedly, in this blog. I do remember the Nome King’s slicing machine from The Emerald City of Oz, but I think that’s because it appealed to my Roald Dahl-ian sense of the macabre as an early teen – and Shockheaded Peter reminds me a lot of Roald Dahl. It’s a huge double standard, isn’t it? I think it can be quite funny, in the abstract, when Baum has these little fleeting references to something awful happening off stage, but when it’s highlighted so consistently throughout the novel I start to feel a little queasy.

Well, and I think that’s because it’s got a real-world presence. I imagine this being made into a movie in the ’80s, and the “slicing machine” would have to be a sort of magic laser or something far more fantastical. Here, Cap’n Bill isn’t really in danger of being patched to a goat – he’s going to be sliced in half by a giant cleaver. Baum’s invented an even more grotesque version of the guillotine, one that takes away a prisoner’s personhood and turns them into, well, a lump of meat. It’s even more frightening than real life!

John R. Neill (1912)

You were worried that they were really going to patch the bad guys at the end of the book. I, on the other hand – as a nice, sweet little American who’s grown up on nice, sweet little American films – expected them to unpatch Fredjim and Jimfred and put their halves back in their rightful places. That doesn’t happen.

I don’t think that’s ideological. We know Baum barely redrafted anything, and there’s a lot of padding early in the novel, so it feels increasing the pace by the end just because he wants it to end. It’s just that he didn’t think of unpatching them, or he didn’t feel like it, or he had somewhere to be. “I’ve got to finish this, and then it’s off to the theatre!”

Well, I would like this to stop for a while, please. I’m starting to be…over…slicing machines. Look, there were soldiers who regularly lost their limbs to amputation in battlefield hospitals. There were horrible civilian injuries in Baum’s time. I’m actually surprised that he could routinely make light of it. Today, children’s and young adult books are getting grislier and grislier, but I think it’s because nobody reading them actually encounters any violence. Everybody’s quite detached from it, and nobody understands the consequences of that kind of imagery. That wouldn’t have been the case in Baum’s time. There are later Baum books where I feel like he’s confronting this kind of thing a little more responsibly – obviously, because of the onset of World War I – but here? Yeah, here it’s starting to trouble me a little.

Over the Rainbow

Following up your last point, you know, Baum even has an amputee in this book: Cap’n Bill.

John R. Neill (1912)

Oh yeah – of course. He barely comments on that, does he?

No, except to say, “My wooden leg is just as good as my old leg, really.” It’s not a gag – it’s a part of him – but it’s understated. The only time it really comes up is when he tries, and fails, to use it to run along a wall.

. . . As charmingly represented in a color plate.

I’m always interested in the amount of illustrations before the book really begins – here, and in the Oz books, as well. They’re usually the Oz characters in crazy situations, like Jack Pumpkinhead reading Baum’s fan mail. This one has a lot of pictures of birds, which set me up to expect a “parliament of birds” kind of situation – and there’s also a picture of Cap’n Bill traveling down along a tightrope between two stars on his wooden leg, which has been fitted with a wheel!

John R. Neill (1912)

Oh! That is an interesting illustration, isn’t it? I think Neill’s just having a bit of fun, frankly.

It’s really surreal.

It is. What drug was he on that day?

My thoughts on these illustrations are quite related to my thoughts last book: last time, I thought there wasn’t much plot, but that the subject Baum had chosen was quite geared to Neill creating beautiful art, but in this case, there’s so much going on in the story there’s not really room for Neill to do anything decorative. He’s always got to pick something that’s happening, which takes him away from his strengths.

. . . To the point where the single best image in the book, in my opinion, is the frontispiece, showing us the appearance of Polychrome and the Daughters of the Rainbow. There are a number of beautiful pieces by Neill, including some excellent black-and-white spreads, but this is a real gem, lovingly colored by the publishers.

John R. Neill (1912)

I agree. I think it’s interesting that there’s an appearance of the rainbow so early on, which feels a little like . . . well, I know I’m a little bit obsessed with this idea that Baum had some kind of sub/super-structure, which he didn’t always remember to refer to, where the fairies are always involved. If the fairies represent the forces of good, though, surely the rainbow is a cosmic symbol of harmony.

I think you’re right. Do you have a problem with the deus ex machina of Polychrome, Attorney at Law?

You mean when they summon her up accidentally? No, I don’t mind deus ex machinas in this situation, especially as it’s not the denouement.

Actually, that’s how I remembered it: that she came in at the denouement. That’s not right, though, is it?

It doesn’t undermine Trot at all, thankfully. It feels, weirdly, like a big spectacular turn in the middle of a stage play. You could imagine this book being adapted to the stage, especially all the stuff about the slicing machine (sorry!). Would Baum have been thinking about cinema at this time at all?

Oh yes. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company was started just a few months later.

I can imagine Sky Island as a silent feature, and this scene would be a big special effect sequence in the middle, with lots of beautiful girls and dancing. Then, it’s back to the regular story.

That’s a really good idea. They could have tinted the entire frame blue or pink. That’s entirely possible and consistent with the time period.

There you are, then!

John R. Neill (1912)


Thinking about the aesthetics of the time, I think it’s interesting that at this point – in a complete surprise to me – we’ve reached the visual standard of the Reilly & Britton / Reilly & Lee Oz books. Basically, they’re all going to look like this for the next twenty-five years! We’ve got the bright cloth cover, the stamped spine vignette, the cover plate, twelve interior color plates, black and white chapter headings and other illustrations, often including some spreads. Essentially, that’s an Oz book, from 1914’s Tik-Tok of Oz to 1935’s The Wishing Horse of Oz – and even after that, for about another twenty years, the only derivation is the removal of the interior plates. That’s shocking when you think about it: the same book design in a changing marketplace for almost forty years. And Sky Island did it first!

It goes back to what I was saying about the Oz books, though. They are so often viewed in terms of being a series of one-offs, when in actual fact the pleasure of them is that each one is just a tiny installment in a bigger whole. Reading them up to this point feels like an extremely slow resolution into what an Oz book is, so you – as a reader – know what to expect. They’re not about innovation, book to book . . . .

They were, though, at first. Up ’til this point, they really were. Think about the watercolors in Dorothy and the Wizard or Emerald City, or Road to Oz’s color pages.

Hmm. Yes, but it makes sense once they’re part of a regular series. Speaking as a fan and a dedicated reader, I would want a new Oz book to be exactly aesthetically the same as the previous ones.

Oh, me too, and most people would agree with us – and that’s why there’s been a real effort, in publishing latter-day Oz books through the International Wizard of Oz Club or Hungry Tiger Press, to produce books that are in as close to the same style as they can get. I do think it’s interesting, though, that this aesthetic we’ve become so familiar with – especially for any collector of antique editions – doesn’t actually originate with the Oz books. It’s here, in Sky Island – the annual Baum book instead of the annual Oz book, at the exact moment when that transition begins. (It codifies after his death, naturally, when the best-selling series outlasts the mortal author.) We’re at the end of the experimentation of design we saw over the first handful of Oz titles. This is comfortable, secure, stylish, and familiar.

This seems like a really good place to close.

I guess I’m going to ask my usual two questions. First of all, did you enjoy reading Sky Island?

John R. Neill (1912)

Yeah, I really, really enjoyed reading Sky Island! And I was massively relieved, too. Everything about it is better than The Sea Fairies. The bits when Trot’s basically taking over are so well done and so satisfying that they make you want to read more stories about her. They make me think, “Oh, he could have done a lot more with this character.” She’s a lot more interesting than Dorothy. How about you?

No, I really enjoyed it, too – in a different way than I expected. Because it’s a more satirical novel, because it’s more structured than I ever would have predicted, it felt a little more “writerly” than a lot of Baum’s books up to this point. He thought Sky Island was his best book, you know, at least according to a couple of interviews. He thought he would be remembered for this one.

That’s such a strange claim, given that he already was a celebrity! I can certainly put a lot of that down to his natural showmanship – we’ve already seen with things like Chick the Cherub that he wasn’t above presenting himself in a certain way for publicity. I think he should have felt proud writing this book, though, because it has an integrity and energy that not all of his writing does! That’s my feeling. It really holds together, and you don’t need to have read The Sea Fairies to enjoy it.

You’ve already guessed my final question.

. . . About kids reading it today? I could see this being republished alongside Wonderful Wizard and being seen as a fun adventure of its era, instead of just a boring period piece. Slicing aside! How about you?

That’s just it – I’m not sure I can put the slicing aside. I struggle a little bit whether I would hand this one to a child, specifically because of the slicing machine aspect. I’m sorry I feel that way, because in almost every other regard I think it’s a very fine book! I don’t think I’d have trouble giving it to a child who was already quite familiar with the Oz books, mind you, but would I be able to recommend it on its own merit? I’m not sure. For the first time, I’m really not sure. I love so many qualities of this book, but there’s just that one rather overwhelming thing that makes me hesitate. Mind you, it is far and away a better book than Sea Fairies – not a book I’m sorry to have read, but at the same time, I’ll be happy to get back to Oz. 

The book-buyers of the 1910s seem to have agreed with you, Sarah. So we’re heading off to meet The Patchwork Girl of Oz . . . ?

Well, not quite. Before we make the long leap back into Oz with The Patchwork Girl, Nick, we’re taking a few little side-steps. A few very, very little steps…

What do you think? Does Sky Island rise in your estimation, or would you rather fly away to a new adventure? Tell us the comments below!

Next Time

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Ozma 7LITTLE WIZARD STORIES (1913)

Read along with us and send in your thoughts! Tell us what topics we should discuss! Be a part of BURZEE!

Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.

2 thoughts on “Sky Island (1912)

  1. Like The Sea Fairies, I hadn’t read this before you all prompted me; unlike The Sea Fairies, I really enjoyed the experience. I agree that it feels more planned than a lot of Baum’s novels; so many of his books are about getting from Point A to Point B, and even when they’re technically not about trying to get somewhere they sort of work that in there anyway, like in Marvelous Land or Emerald City or Lost Princess. (Some of these do it better than others; I enjoy Marvelous Land, whereas in Emerald City the travel stuff is just padding.) But Sky Island is very much about the governments and people of Sky Island in a way that makes it more focused than almost any other of Baum’s fantasies I can recollect. It’s also tremendous fun—Baum is inventive and clever and whimsical and suspenseful in just the right proportions.

    I agree that Baum’s doing something political here, but I almost like that it’s hard to map on anything in particular; Baum’s attempts at social commentary can be heavy-handed at times, but this one is engaging. I really liked the stuff about democracy and poverty and such, and it was thought-provoking even if I didn’t quite know what he was trying to say.

    I enjoyed Cap’n Bill in this one a lot, even if he was somewhat ineffectual; the way he takes charge of the military is fun even if he does end up captured ASAP. Baum always seems to have it out for militaries! (This reminded me a lot of some of the stuff in Ozma of Oz.)

    The Dover edition of this book does have the color plates, for which I’m very grateful—this feels like some of Neill’s best work to me! But maybe I just think that because I actually don’t have very many Oz books that include color illustrations, so of course this one stands out. The cloud journey on the umbrella looks great, and I always like the way Neill draws Polychrome.


  2. One of my favorite books, ever. I like it better than any of the Oz books. I find the first six chapters to be arguably the best writing that Baum ever did.

    I don’t think the political and racial/ethnic aspects of Sky Island are Baum’s attempts to comment or satirize any specific event or attitude. I think they display Baum’s attitudes in general about aspects of his culture. My sense has always been that he’s allowing these aspects into the story in a natural way, rather than deliberately setting out to weave them into the story’s fabric. To me Baum the writer has never seemed to be much of a conscious planner. That seems to me to be both Baum’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness. When his writing works, it really works. When it doesn’t, it’s flat.

    To me the patching stuff has always been more thrilling in its threat than terrifying.


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