The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913)

Patchwork Girl 1923 - CoverThe Sea Fairies (1911) and Sky Island (1912) were both failures when compared to the Oz books, and public anticipation for the new novel had been stoked by Little Wizard Stories. At this point, it was up to L. Frank Baum – and deliver he did, to massive commercial success. The Patchwork Girl of Oz arrived in July 1913 and ensured that Reilly and Britton would publish a new Oz book every year for decades to come.

The plot is familiar, at least in its broadest strokes: “unlucky” Munchkin boy Ojo and his Unc Nunkie leave their simple home to find food. Taking shelter with the Crooked Magician, Dr. Pipt, and his wife Margolette, they are witness to the magical creation of Scraps, a stuffed patchwork girl intended for a life of servitude. An unlucky accident leaves Margolette and Unc Nunkie turned to stone statues, so Ojo sets out with Scraps, a Glass Cat, and a list of required magical ingredients to find the road of yellow bricks and reach the Emerald City…

Have you read The Patchwork Girl of Oz? No? We can help! Here it is . . . 

scrapsme
Photo and handmade friend courtesy Jane Albright

You know what’s interesting, Nick? says Sarah.

What’s that? says Nick.

Whenever I’ve spoken to people before who are aware of the Oz books after the first one, almost always, they tell me that their favorite is Patchwork Girl. This has happened more times than I can count. When I was a child, I would have called it one of my favorites, too, and I’m not entirely sure why – although I have some ideas. What I can tell you is that both I, and they, loved this book and held it in high regard. Even at the National Convention I recently attended, several people told me it was their childhood favorite. A couple of men – including Dee Michel, author of Friends of Dorothy: Why Gay Men and Boys Love The Wizard of Oz – suggested they had liked it best because of the male protagonist, but I’ve heard from women who like it just as much. That includes my own thesis director!

Patchwork Picture FinalIs it too early in our discussion to suggest what seems, to me, obvious – that the reason people love Patchwork Girl is because of the Patchwork Girl herself? She seems to be a real fan favorite. That’s quite interesting, considering how late she comes into the series.

You might be on to something, there. Most polls I’ve ever seen for favorite character – and you’re just going to have to take my word for this, obviously – Dorothy is always the front-runner, followed by the Scarecrow, and then in the next place or the one thereafter is Scraps. She always makes it very high up. She was Ruth Plumly Thompson’s favorite, which is pretty obvious once you get to the Thompson books – she makes a glorified cameo in nearly every one.

Scraps! (She’ll Save Every One of Us)

I think I’d also rate her amongst my favorites. While I was prepared for Scraps to turn out a disappointment – as things have sometimes been on this blog – I still see so much to love about her. She’s a female character who is wild, clever, funny, and doesn’t give a toss what anyone thinks about her, which is both fun and very Ozzy. If I had to say what I love about the Oz books, it would be at least partly the idea of people who are invented for one purpose or another who still manage to have an amazing sense of pride.

. . . And in Scraps’ case, very little sense of shame.

Yes, exactly!

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John R. Neill (1913)

I’d say, to a child, Scraps is a particularly vivid personality. Of course, not two blogs ago, in Sky Island, I griped at you that Baum never allows women to be adventurers who have fun, and now here we are with the ultimate expression of a fun-loving, female character. She is child-like but not a child; she even has a quasi-romance with the Scarecrow, so inasmuch as we code the Scarecrow or Jack as an adult, we code Scraps to be an adult, too. The pictures even make a point of showing off her freewheeling aspects. There’s a whole picture by Neill subtitled, “I hate dignity!”

I remember seeing that, a long time ago in The World of Oz, and to me it just always looked like a poster – almost a kind of political motto, or something.

Does all of this change or enhance your impression of Baum as a supporter of the suffragette movement? Remember, this is 1913, so women still don’t have the right to vote. Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive party has just been defeated. At the same time, the “American Girl”  is very much seen as shedding the shackles of the 19th century, so Scraps is both completely current and fairly shocking.

She’s a bit of a cultural rarity: a female clown. Compared to some of the other strong women Baum’s featured, she has less obvious power – but the clown has a power all its own.

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John R. Neill (1913)

I’m fascinated by just how unfeminine she is, and some of that’s just down to Neill, because he draws her in a way which is both endearing and often a parody of femininity. In most of the illustrations, she’s completely graceless and lacking in any aspect which would be read as beautiful or even sweet. That’s quite interesting coming from an artist like Neill, who always draws beautiful women and perfect, winsome children with endless appeal. Scraps is not like that at all.

Her appearance in Neill’s visuals is just so strong, I actually looked in detail at how Baum describes her in the text – and he does refer to her very early on as “almost beautiful.” Ojo considers her mouth “very artistic and life-like.” Neill exaggerates her rawness, her inhuman elements, with that big grinning mouth and her little nub of a nose. Make sense?

Absolutely.

I think she grows a bit uglier as the book goes on – in Baum’s text, I mean. It may be that he’s slowly building towards the joke of the Scarecrow thinking she’s beautiful. There has to be a certain irony to that, so he increasingly “uglifies” her for the audience.

The more alive she is, the less pretty she is.

We do begin with that fantastic scene of Ojo giving her all these qualities that she wasn’t going to get, as well, which has a satirical dimension. At the same time, essentially, she’s a cartoon. She’s not an ideal heroine. There’s no emotional or educational journey that Scraps goes through; she remains pretty much as wild and free and full of herself as she is at the start, and it’s Ojo who has that arc, moving from the sticks to the big city, meeting all these freaks and weirdos. It’s his journey more than it is hers. There’s no sense of her being reformed.

Bonzo-Doo-Dah-Woozy

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John R. Neill (1913)

This is a whole book of great characters. Take the Glass Cat, for instance. For some reason I had remembered Bungle as male. That’s not right – and thank goodness, because I think it makes much more sense. With her and Eureka, Baum clearly knew one or two prissy little female cats in real life.

Yes. Going back to “Why do you like this book?”, it’s partly down to structure, but the actual characters Baum introduces are original and fun – and that must have been hard, seven books on. She completely adores herself, which leads to lots of fun conversations.

What do you make of the Woozy? I like a bit of Woozy, me.

I do like the Woozy. I don’t even know what the Woozy is or what he’s supposed to be except, perhaps, something that predicts the rise of Minecraft.

Ha!

He’s utterly bizarre, and a bit of a spin on the Cowardly Lion, too, because he’s not as terrible as he seems. Of all the tropes Baum could repeat, this one is welcome. Just like having a strong female character, having a more effete male beast is pretty good to read after all this time.

I’ve read some theories that the Woozy was inspired by the cubist art movement, which I’m perfectly ready to believe. However, I’ve also read that it was inspired directly by Marchel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” which I am less prepared to accept.

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John R. Neill (1913)

You say that – but you think about Baum and Maud traveling around and being celebrities, and presumably going to museums, and it makes you wonder. The Patchwork Girl herself is a kind of collage, isn’t she? And the Glass Cat is almost Rene Magritte. Oooh, I’m liking that theory – they’re all art installations!

Apparently Baum was very concerned that Neill not draw the Woozy to look as if he was made of wood, which he did in one picture. Baum wanted him to be more leathery, and of course, if you read the book he’s dark blue, not brown. Sadly, I rather like the “wooden” Woozy picture. I like it a lot.

A square animal must have been very hard to draw, in Neill’s defense. 

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John R. Neill (1913)

A memorable character, though! I was thinking to myself that the big color picture of Scraps and Ojo pulling on the Woozy’s tail – again, thanks to The World of Oz – is one of the most iconic images of the series, at least to me. (And it seems someone in Wamego, Kansas, agrees, as it features in a memorable display in the OZ Museum!)

Mm-hmm. I’m thinking about the cubism thing again. Looking at that picture, everything but the Woozy is done in these fine lines – particularly, Ojo looks quite animated – and the Woozy has these stark, white outlines. He looks like a cartoon, come into the real world.

He’s a bit Hanna-Barbera, yes. Speaking of cartoons, I have a giant coloring book of The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Someone gave it to me when I was quite small. It’s massive – about two feet high – and I’ve partially colored in most of the pictures, which are usually composed similarly to Neill’s illustrations. It remains, for me, a peculiar and rather specifically amazing adaptation, and it makes a sort of sense – for a kid, Scraps is the ultimate coloring book subject!

I’ve Heard This Story Before

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is much more satisfying than some of the books we’ve read, where the character with their name in the title doesn’t figure very much in the story. This is one hundred percent Scraps’ book; she’s in it throughout, and she gets to do some cool things. Doesn’t she talk sense into the Horners and Hoppers and sort out their war?

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John R. Neill (1913)

She does, in a very roundabout sort of way. Scraps is what gamers would today call “chaotic good.” For Baum, she seems to function as the Scarecrow on speed – she has some of the same hare-brained logic that he demonstrated in the first couple of books, and it’s interesting that Baum sidelines the Scarecrow so Scraps can play the diplomat.

Baum keeps them together in the second half, though, so you don’t feel – as you sometimes do with other Oz characters – that one is replacing the other. He has a sense of their difference as characters; they’re very aligned, they’re of a “family.” And they’re actually more interesting in conversation together. It means you have a diversity of oddness, people who are unusual in different ways, which I think is another reason why this book feels particularly satisfying.

Okay, so we’ve really gone on quite a long tear about the characters without really delving into the story itself. Do you remember reading The Patchwork Girl of Oz before?

A month ago, I would have said, “Yes.” I remember ordering the Dover paperback through a regular high-street bookshop called WH Smiths, which meant that when it arrived, it was even more exciting than any other Oz book I’d found before. When I came to reread it, though, I found that I had misremembered, insofar as I may never have read the second half of this book!

Patchwork Girl 1923 - Title Page
John R. Neill (1913)

Oh, it’s funny you should say that, for two reasons. The first is that I also ordered the Dover edition. I have the feeling it had just come out, or was being advertised, which may have led us both to buy it. The other thing you mention is also interesting, though, because I thought I remembered this book perfectly until I reread it and discovered: the second half is almost completely different than my memory of it.

What is it about this book? I wonder if your experience might be more to do with the fact that once the book is halfway through, it’s a generic Oz travelogue, but it opens with a strong, novelistic beginning, which is quite unlike almost anything else we’ve read so far for this blog.

Yeah, it’s got a particularly strong narrative drive in the first half, and before I reread it, one of my bigger theories as to why people like it so much was that it’s a very strong fantasy quest story. The problem with that theory is that only the first half of it is a very strong fantasy quest story. The second half is only a very strong fantasy quest story in the memory, not actually on the page. The elements are there, but it’s just not at as tightly constructed as the first half.

I agree. I think it’s partly because Baum builds the quest around “all corners of Oz” – you know, there’s something to get in Munchkinland, Gillikin Country, etc. – and because he’s crossing the country geographically, he has to hit the Emerald City and do that bit of the plot in the middle. Whereas in a traditional narrative, you’d just end up there, with Ojo’s trial as the conclusion.

That reminds me of Wonderful Wizard, and I’ve heard people say before that Baum was intentionally trying to reconstruct Wizard with this book. I’d never really considered that before, but if you think about it, it works. You’ve got a child, a stuffed character, an unusual animal, and a character made of artificial material, all going down the road of yellow bricks to the Emerald City.

…And their expectations of what they’ll find in the Emerald City are confounded, and the idea of a “fair and just” ruler is challenged. Hmm! I really hadn’t thought about that. In a funny way, it’s also very like Marvelous Land.

Yeah, that similarity’s actually much more obvious to me, thinking about it from a child’s perspective. Tip, Jack, and the Sawhorse have much stronger equivalents in Ojo, Scraps, and the Glass Cat. Either way, it seems clear that Baum has a certain way of constructing stories that he prefers.

Thinking about it, there’s not even a villain in this book, which is intriguing given the strong narrative drive. No one impedes the characters for very long.

I suppose there’s Ozma and her laws – are they the big “obstacle”?

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John R. Neill (1913)

Ozma puts Ojo on trial, and the Tin Woodman refuses to let them kill a butterfly – so the good guys do, at various times, seem like they’re going to stop our heroes achieving their goals.

I’ve always been curious that fans don’t criticize the end of this book. The final third of Wonderful Wizard comes in for a lot of stick, and (looking ahead a bit) Rinkitink in Oz culminates in an abrupt deus ex machina. The ending of this book is just as much of a cop-out, yet nobody seems concerned that the Tin Woodman renders the entire quest pointless. Does that ruin the book for you at all?

No. No, not really. I liked the Tin Woodman’s absolute unswerving belief that they shouldn’t mutilate a butterfly. It’s a real “needle-scratches-as-it-comes-off-the-record” moment. It’s not necessarily handled very well, but it happens so quickly I don’t mind it at all.

I think that’s the entire reason Baum gets away with it. It’s an Alfred Hitchcock ending: the Band-Aid is ripped off and before you can think about it, it’s all over.

“And everyone’s okay! THE END!”

Bread Trees and Adventures in Utopia

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John R. Neill (1913)

One of the things I like best about the book is that it is relatively free of Baum’s patented morbidity but very high in a quotient of general strangeness. I was reading the very beginning where Ojo and Unc Nunkie have a discussion about there being no food in the house. “Nothing grows in our yard but the bread tree…” It made me think to myself just how responsible Baum is for how my brain works. About a year ago I was at my regular coffee shop, trying to get a bagel with cream cheese, and they told me they wouldn’t have bagels for about a month. They said there was something wrong with the distributor. Quick as anything, I wondered, “Do the bagel trees have blight?” That’s a very Baumian way of looking at the world, I think – and at the time, it didn’t occur to me to connect the two, but it made me smile to recall it while reading Patchwork Girl. Baum is partly responsible for the way my brain seems to work – and maybe a lot of other people’s brains, too.

That’s lovely. When we got into The Emerald City of Oz, we talked a lot about how Oz was becoming a slightly dull, cloying place, and I had this theory that Baum wanted a utopian state that you just wouldn’t need to keep writing about it. Now that he’s coming back to Oz, he’s obliged to find ways of things not being perfect, and the excuse of the bread tree is clever. There’s another bit later on about the mountainous areas of Oz and places that aren’t easily reached, which might be undocumented and hide very scary things! That opens it right up again.

There’s a great get-around early in the book – which he repeats in the silent film, actually, and there’s so few words in the silent film I think it’s intriguing they chose this for an intertitle – “Nobody starves in the land of Oz, but we have to go where the food is.” That’s a nice variation on the whole “nobody goes hungry in the utopia” front. They’re not going to starve, but they’re going to be in such discomfort they’d best pick themselves up and go to the food.

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John R. Neill (1913)

I also think there’s something very American in the idea of Oz being so big, in contrast to the Grimm’s fairy tales Baum tried to mimic in some of his earliest books. However good the administration of Oz is, it’s impossible to fully execute.

Particularly when you’re thinking about the timeframe these books were written in, we still very much had “the untamed west.” You had Baum out in California by this point, where the gold rushes had taken place. People had died in conflict with each other to try and make their fortunes at “discovery.” Yeah, I think that’s absolutely what’s inspiring Baum’s Oz here. The United States are built on the concept of expansive wilderness. Even now that we’ve cataloged all of it, there’s almost no way to take it all in; I think there’s still a sense that it’s all a bit too big to get your brain around. I think that’s very much what Baum’s representing through fantasy.

Ozma has a Magic Picture where she can see all parts of the country whenever she wants, but Baum balances that with the idea that she doesn’t necessarily know what she’s looking for. She might miss something. If you govern dictatorially, you might provoke someone like Ojo to break the law. There’s nuance coming into Baum’s utopia as he tries to work out where adventures come from. He’s considering what life is actually like in this place.

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John R. Neill (1913)

How perfect is the perfect state if you don’t know you’re living in it? One of the more interesting moments for me is when the Quadling man doesn’t recognize the Scarecrow – yet we have, by this point, been told that the Scarecrow is “the most famous man in Oz.” Even if we haven’t encountered it yet, we’re quickly heading toward a time where we find parts of Oz that do not know they are governed by Ozma. In that case, what does governance look like? Are we veering uncomfortably toward a situation like that of the American Indians, where “government” is inflicted by a power upon free people, whether they like it or not? I don’t know.

There’s also the issue that Ozma is an unelected head of state. We’ve never met her family, or learned how they came to rule in the first place. I guess we had a sort of “coiling-up” of Oz into this bundle where everything was fine, and now, for more stories about it, we have to unravel it to get at its structure and deeper history. There are all these questions suddenly waiting to be asked. It’ll be interesting to see when and where the authors choose to give us answers.

WHAT MAKES THE HOTTENTOT SO HOT?

Nick, what do you make of Victor Columbia Edison?

Who? Oh yes – the phonograph.

He’s an odd little secondary character, isn’t he? His name is a pun on all the major phonogram companies of the day.

He’s very funny, quite stagey. I assume it’s Baum bringing vaudeville-style theatrics into his text, although why, I’m not sure. I like how everyone hates him so completely!

And they basically deny him entry into the group.

It’s like The Land of Oz, with the Woggle-Bug’s puns – you think at some point, they’re just going to throw him out of the Gump if he doesn’t shut up. Here, they do.

Ha! It’s quite funny – after several books of love and togetherness and everybody being uniquely different, the characters just look at each other and go, “No, sorry, not having you, mate.”

Exactly.

What did you think of Victor Columbia Edison’s little song?

Aha – well I read the Dover paperback; and it’s not as it appears in the Books of Wonder edition, is it?

Nope. In the original book, the phonograph plays a song that is clearly meant to parody the popular music of the day: the sort of thing we still associate with Al Jolson. Unfortunately, we also associate it with blackface and minstrelcy, and there’s a reason. Now, we know from interviews with much younger relatives that Baum was not a fan of popular music; it got right up his nose, and the entire point of the talking phonograph in this book is to make fun of it. It’s entirely appropriate that the phonograph’s song has lyrics describing “Mah coal-black Lulu” – but it also dates the book quite hard, too, and it’s not really surprising that Peter Glassman, the editor of Books of Wonder, felt a need to change it. What’s a little stranger is that he replaced the offending phrase with “mah cross-eyed Lulu,” which just seems to exchange one unfortunate and problematic description for another.

Particularly as he keeps the “mah,” so it does seem to be leaving the problem in place, as opposed to neutralizing it, as he surely intended.

Similarly, way ahead in chapter 19, the sequence with the Tottenhots has been altered. They’re no longer described as “dusky,” and they’ve cut a close-up illustration by Neill, which is surely the most racist aspect of the whole thing. And this is not an isolated incident with Books of Wonder; they fairly heavily altered the first two Doctor Dolittle books, for instance, including completely rewriting a chapter of The Story of Dr. Dolittle. It’s quite obvious why they did all of this, too – to make them marketable to modern children of the 1990s – and I’m not even criticizing, necessarily. My question for you is: do these changes make any difference?

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John R. Neill (1913)

Well, I think it’s really difficult. We’ve often talked about these books being read by today’s children, and you have to handle that experience in some way. I appreciate these attempts, but I do think having a little disclaimer in the front – “There’s some offensive stuff in this book; it’s of its time” – is more productive, both for parents and people like you and me. The problem with making little changes like a word here and there, or an image or two, is that they’re still called “Tottenhots.” They’re still depicted as African stereotypes. By making the minor changes and keeping quiet about it, you’re inadvertently endorsing what you leave behind.

Yeah. I’m not quite sure what to do with this, because they’ve really just made the whole thing more awkward. I think if this were a situation where you could just eliminate two uses of the word “dusky” and change the lyrics of the song, I would be completely in Glassman’s corner. The problem is, as you say, that it’s a little more complicated. Of course, with every passing day, fewer and fewer people know the word “Hottentot” – I wouldn’t be surprised if most people had only ever heard it in the MGM Wizard of Oz, as part of the lyrics of “If I Were King of the Forest”. Similarly, you and I discussed (and I actually cut from the blog) that the word “Growleywog” in The Emerald City of Oz is probably a verbal play on “Golliwog” – but who remembers what a “Golliwog” is today? There may not be a child in America at this very minute who would understand Baum’s play on words. The problem with the Tottenhots is that they’re compounded, first by Baum’s description, and then by Neill’s visuals. If they went to the trouble of cutting the most offensive of Neill’s pictures, why not cut the other two?

What if you took out the Tottenhots chapter? It’s worth considering that Baum already cut a chapter from this book – “The Garden of Live Meats” – and, as far as we know, didn’t do anything to join up the ends. A book like The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is problematic no matter which way you look at it, because a great deal of the novel is about a white man coming to a remote island, rescuing everybody and becoming a god-like king. You can’t just change a word and solve the problem. The Oz books I’ve read don’t tend to have those kinds of narratives; they’re about the freaks and the weirdos being the heroes, and The Patchwork Girl of Oz is a particularly good example of that. Last Christmas it was even staged as a musical here in London, specifically because of its message of diversity.

You’ve got a point. All right, so you’ve come to a surprisingly simple solution on that one. Ready for another little problem?

Go on…

A WOMAN OF COLOR

This is something I’ve only ever heard once,  but it stuck in the back of my mind and I’d like your opinion, please: what do you think about the idea that Scraps herself is a racist stereotype?

Ah! I’m glad you brought this up. No, I must admit I had thought about this before, too, and I can’t quite shake it – particularly because of Neill’s illustrations rather than Baum’s text.

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John R. Neill (1913)

Well – and I can’t believe I’m bringing this up – I did think it was a little distressing that more than once, she’s called Margolotte’s slave. Not just “servant”; “slave.” And then there’s this little quote from Dame Margolotte, early on in the story:

“When my housework girl is brought to life she will find herself to be of so many unpopular colors that she’ll never dare be rebellious or impudent, as servants are sometimes liable to be when they are made the same way their mistresses are.”

Ooh. That’s very pointed, isn’t it? I think – and Neill’s illustrations drive it home – there are certain associations which you can make significant if you choose. They are, though, only associations. You couldn’t reduce this to a racial caricature, particularly considering her constructedness and her sheer rebelliousness. Also, she isn’t handed back to Margolotte as a servant at the end of the book.

Yes, and I would bring it back around to that. Having been clued into it, I have a hard time not seeing the racial symbolism now – but at the same time, I would be far more concerned if Baum effectively “lobotomized” Scraps at the conclusion or returned things to the status quo. Instead, he rewards her for all the agency she’s shown throughout the book. Scraps becomes a beloved denizen of the Emerald City, along with all of our other friends, so you have to work fairly hard to get a truly negative reading out of Baum’s text.

I feel as if we’re not quite hitting it on the nose, but I don’t think this is a straightforward issue. Scraps is an emancipated woman, but what Baum does with her isn’t entirely clear-cut. I find myself looking at the Scarecrow, and wondering if the way he’s depicted has changed. Should he be read in a similar way to Scraps? Could it just have to do with the way Neill’s illustrations continue to evolve?

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John R. Neill (1913)

Yeah – Neill’s take on characters like the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman keeps evolving, and it’s going to settle fairly soon now that we’re into a regular series. For what it’s worth, I don’t see any racist aspect to the Scarecrow. Scraps is a little different because we’re taking little bits of information from different sources: from the circumstances, from her personality, from her famous hatred of dignity and lack of aspiration. We can read little things into each of those parts of her depiction. The Scarecrow has always aspired to something, from the time we met him, and although his behavior can inspire laughter, he always tries to live up to everyone’s expectations. Of the two of them, Scraps is the rebel, Scraps is the ne’er-do-well, Scraps is the one without grace.

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John R. Neill (1913)

Ah, that’s an interesting way to think about it. Scraps is “uncivilized,” and many of the ideas of “civilization” of the time are attached to whiteness. She occupies a whole space of general “otherness” which includes the category of race, and perhaps that’s why we both read her as we do and why we also have trouble pinning her down to a reading that’s clear-cut and accessible.

I think you’re right. I’d include in there the fact that she does not use “proper” English – which, again, is attached to whiteness – and she’s the only character to do so who is not a child. In fact, she sometimes uses specifically improper English, which sets her apart both as a freewheeling, fun-loving character, but also as someone without dignity or class, and there are all kinds of things you can read into that. I will say, though – for all their other faults, the Tottenhots speak in perfect, formal English. They are, in fact, incredibly polite.

No, they’re not baddies, are they? They just dance all day.

Beyond their description, they’re really not horribly racist in terms of how they act, although I suppose their childlike playfulness is a stereotype in and of itself. However, they’re also very pleasant, gracious, and completely hospitable. To be fair, Baum may have intended that as a kind of satire, but it’s easy to take it at face value. It’s the physical description and the illustrations that are truly problematic.

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John R. Neill (1913)

Appearances can be misleading or ambiguous in these books. One of my favorite lines in the whole book comes from Dorothy, who meets one weird character after another as if she’s interviewing them for a job placement. She meets the Woozy, and she says, “You’re not pretty…but I like you.” That’s a very Dorothy sort of thing to say, I think.

ART AND ADAPTATION

You know, it’s weird seeing how much color was originally in the book, because of course it’s not replicated in my little Dover edition.

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John R. Neill (1913)

What’s strange for me is that after several books of really gorgeous images – think back to the watercolors of The Emerald City of Oz or the beautiful metallic inks in The Sea Fairies – this feels a little bit like a step backward, because they’ve gone back to printing the colors directly into the book, as they did in Ozma of Oz. They probably made the right choice, because it means they can have a lot more color – and almost every image of the Patchwork Girl herself is vibrantly colorful – but it does feel a little odd.

Yeah, it does feel like they’re reining it in a little bit.

Maybe it’s because Sea Fairies and Sky Island didn’t sell? I could see them trying to produce a cheaper book here, just in case. Of course, this one sold magnificently, as it turned out, but they weren’t to know that ahead of time.

Well, we know that Reilly & Britton did everything they could with this art, reusing pieces of it in multiple places. . . .

. . . And reusing art from Little Wizard Stories, too.

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John R. Neill (1913)

Yes. That makes it all feel just a little bit cheaper. At the same time, though, it is nice that there’s an illustration on nearly every page.

I think the book is designed in a very entertaining and colorful way. I wouldn’t call it strictly pretty, and I wouldn’t call it as finely designed as many of the other Oz books have been, but I do think it’s a really fun book to read.

There’s a lot of movement in the art, too; lots of climbing over things or going along a river or what-have-you. Like Wonderful Wizard, it feels very outdoorsy and adventuresome. It’s like there’s a whooosh! on every page.

Perhaps that’s what people like about it – it’s not just a sense of adventure, but of movement, that people respond to. And it’s a funny thing to mention, movement, because this is the first Oz book immortalized as a feature-length silent film.

It’s interesting to be able to watch Baum’s film version and see so much of the book’s content and characters survive on screen. It’s much Ozzier than, say, the Larry Semon Wizard of Oz. You see everyone in this! They’re all there, seventy years before the coronation sequence of Return to Oz. I also found that it’s rather nice watched alongside the Return to Oz score.

Oh, that’s a great idea. I might try it again that way. The film is much as I remembered it, but I think it was a particularly good idea to hire a French acrobat as Scraps. There’s a charming sequence of Scraps and the Woozy having a little dance, and there’s some gentle humor, too; I like that when Ojo is taken prisoner in the Emerald City, everyone gets a little prisoner’s robe with the eye-holes cut out, including the Woozy. I’m not sure it’s a terribly well-made film, but it has a lot of chutzpah; so for me, it’s a special little relic.

It’s ambitious, and I like that it takes for granted that you want to see all of these characters.

rainbow-road-to-oz
“The Rainbow Road to Oz” (photo (c) the Walt Disney Corporation)

You mentioned that new play in London earlier, but it seems like The Patchwork Girl of Oz – or Scraps, at least – has prompted a lot of creativity over the years. Walt Disney came close to making it into a feature film with his Mouseketeers called The Rainbow Road to Oz, but it never got further than a few musical numbers staged for a TV special. There are some interesting clips on YouTube of various stage productions, including a traditional musical and a dance-based interpretation. Just last week, I even heard a staged reading of a play called Scraps, which is all about the Patchwork Girl’s mid-life crisis.

She’s a very relatable character. That’s what we keep coming back to, I think.

Well, she certainly remains a very visible character for the rest of the series. She and the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and Jack all get used to promote the series for at least the duration of Thompson’s tenure.

They’re really the most visually striking characters, aren’t they? They should all be a little scary, but they’re actually easy to like. Even Scraps – she’s heartless, and she’s actually rather hard to pin down. She’s not as cuddly as Jack or the Scarecrow.

No, exactly. She’s always brusque.

TYING OFF THE STITCH

Patchwork Girl 1923 - Illo 06
John R. Neill (1913)

I had a good time reading The Patchwork Girl of Oz – well, I was flummoxed by how little I remembered, but I was relieved by the fact that it didn’t let me down. How about you?

I really enjoyed it, yeah! I read it over three evenings on my porch and I enjoyed it tremendously – in fact, reading on for quite a bit longer than I intended to, because I was enjoying it so much. I was pleased to find it was one of the stronger Oz books, just as I remembered it, and I wouldn’t at all mind reading it again sometime. Would you give the book to a tot today?

Yesssssss . . . if they’d read some of the others? I start to worry about children reading a series as long as this, but yes, I would.

I think I would, too. At this point, I’m realizing that I wouldn’t recommend the Oz books to just “any child.” I wouldn’t give them to a child who wasn’t a very clear-thinking, critical reader. That may sound a bit funny when referring to a child of eight or nine, but I think there’s a clear difference between a child who’s indiscriminate and a child who asks questions and takes notice of things. As you and I have realized, these books are old-fashioned; there’s no way around that after more than a century. So I think I would give this book to a child I knew was ready for it.

Maybe it’s a book that’s best read by or with a parent, and discussed with them?

I think it’s a good book to recommend with parental awareness. How’s that? I wouldn’t hand it to a kid on the street. But I would give it to the child of a friend of mine, certainly, and I would let the parent know that there are some old-fashioned moments in the story that could, or should, lead to discussion. Those few moments aren’t a good reason for me to keep a child from enjoying the fun of Scraps, or the ridiculousness of the Woozy, or the colorful nature of the Horners, or the terror of the giant porcupine and his amazing quills, or any of the other one hundred and one amazing things that happen inside the book. Because it is a very, very good book. 

Well, I’m quite looking forward to our next one. Wind me up when it’s time, will you, Sarah?

What do you think? Is this is the best Oz book? Does Scraps reign supreme? Tell us in the comments!

Next Time

Tik-Tok 1920 FrontispieceTIK-TOK OF OZ (1914)

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

Unless otherwise stated, 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.

 

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Little Wizard Stories (1913) / Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)

Little Wizard 1914 CoverPerhaps the best way to start is to acknowledge a little anachronism, just for everyone keeping track: technically, the collection titled Little Wizard Stories of Oz wasn’t published until 1914, after our next novel, The Patchwork Girl of Oz. However, the individual Little Wizard Stories were published on their own before the novel, in 1913. So here we are, and here we’ll stay, and that’s allllllll that’s left of . . . wait, wrong reference.

Basically, the Little Wizard Stories exist to remind the public that Oz exists – as if they could forget! – as well as to drum up anticipation for Patchwork Girl. In that regard, they are not at all dissimilar to one of Baum’s commercial undertakings from almost a decade earlier. Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land Of Oz was a full-page, syndicated newspaper comic strip – as was common in those days, each installment illustrating a small text story with separate “funny” pictures – that ran from August 1904 to February 1905. The tiny Ozian adventures were meant to promote The Marvelous Land of Oz over the holiday season (it having been published in July of that year). Baffled? Well, we were, too.

These two sets of tiny little stories may be confusing, but thankfully, they’re also really short – so why not read a few before you start our blog? Here are online versions of Little Wizard Stories of Oz and (the text of) Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz. And now, without further bewilderment . . . .

So, Nick, says Sarah, let’s talk about these horrible little stories.

FavouriteMust we? asks Nick. (Yes, that’s him in the picture.) We’ve been reading these novels month to month and looking at Oz pretty much exclusively as it “unfolds.” We didn’t have the opportunity to go to a staging of the 1902 Wizard Of Oz, which I now realize was a big part of “Oz the Idea,” but here we are with what feels like a moment of brand awareness with Little Wizard Stories. For the first time in this blog, we are experiencing Oz outside of the novels, seeing it repurposed, and it’s just not as enjoyable, is it?

Not at all. These stories are what I would call, in media-speak, a “soft reboot” of Oz. Their goal is to reintroduce and reestablish old characters, not just in a new Oz novel but in a  continuing series of novels from here on out. It is, as you say, an exercise in branding, and that’s not a bad thing, per se. The problem is that Baum doesn’t remember to give the characters any characterization, and in writing them into little stories, he doesn’t actually provide much incident. There’s not a lot to work with here, is there?

No, and there’s not much directed to Baum’s established readership, either. Baum very rarely gives us a continuing story of Oz, but often, I think, he at least tries to appeal to kids who read the previous books. This feels aimed at a very different readership: a younger and more picture-oriented one. You could see that readership being addressed in the earlier books because they were so visually rich. You and I are unlikely to enjoy these new stories because they are, to an extent, promotional . . . .

They’re completely promotional. They were priced at 15 cents each, which tells you a lot, because an equivalent novel-length Oz book of the time was $1.25. That’s a jump, isn’t it? All six of these stories cost less than one novel.

Wow.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Ozma 4
John R. Neill (1913)

Something that’s hard for me is that I’ve known about these stories so long – since I was very, very small and had a paperback that reproduced the pictures in black and white – that it’s hard for me to recategorize them within their original context. I struggle to view them purely as promotion, although that’s precisely what they are (and really, I would argue, very little more). I don’t think I’m alone there. They’ve taken on an additional weight in hindsight, mostly for two reasons: because they were later collected and compiled as a book – Little Wizard Stories of Oz – and because Neill illustrated them. That gives them a certain hint of legitimacy that makes them hard to ignore. On the other hand, we’ve almost completely forgotten A Day in Oz, the play that Ruth Plumly Thompson wrote for department store promotional events; it was never published in book form and Neill didn’t illustrate it! Yet it essentially performed the same function of publicizing new Oz books. 

And to the extent that we enjoy the Oz books because of familiar elements – because they’re books, specifically, and books formed in part by Neill’s contributions – there’s quite a lot to like here, because Neill’s work is generally very strong (albeit with some weird lapses). It’s not his best work, but a lot of it’s very attractive.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Jack Pumpkinhead 5
John R. Neill (1913)

I’d say it would be even more attractive if it wasn’t colored. The colors here are often very garish; sometimes that really works, but sometimes it doesn’t. That’s even more affected by the quality of the reprints modern fans are used to reading; we’ll discuss that more in a minute.

Mm. Tik-Tok is, for some reason, blue.

We’ll come back to that, I promise.

I brought up the “rebranding” because if these had sold really well, and Patchwork Girl hadn’t, I can imagine these being the new format for the Oz books. I don’t see Baum being massively wedded to Oz as a series of novels. It feels like, here, they’re testing out exactly who the readership are and what will people will buy. Perhaps there’s a parallel world with seven Oz novels, followed by a decade of picture books with these caricatures of our favorite Ozzy friends.

Misogyny, Fishing, and Buttons

Well, let’s talk about our favorite Ozzy friends. Are you at all intrigued by the characters he chose to highlight in these stories? I am, slightly.

It’s interesting. I think all but Dorothy and Ozma are men –

That’s not a huge shock, surely.

Well, there’s no Polychrome, whom he seemed to have been getting quite into – or Glinda, obviously. And no Billina!

That’s true.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Little Dorothy 7
John R. Neill (1913)

The girls don’t come out of it particularly well, either. Little Dorothy and Toto is a slightly misogynistic little fable, I think.

You’re not wrong. To me, that’s the least of the six Little Wizard stories – by some margin.

That’s not saying very much, really.

No. In fairness, we know for a fact that Little Dorothy and Toto does not have the original ending Baum intended. In the published version Toto comes close to killing Crinklink while in his tiny form, but in the original draft, snap! No more Crinklink.

Oh! Who changed it?

Sumner Britton, of Baum’s publisher, Reilly & Britton. The Book Collector’s Guide to L. Frank Baum and Oz has a nice quote about it, from one of Britton’s letters: “Toto kills Crinklink on much the same order as a terrier would kill a rat and thus everybody gets away all right. This is clearly away from your usual style of not doing any killing.” It was Britton’s suggestion that Crinklink reveal himself to be the Wizard in disguise to teach Dorothy a lesson, which is a terrible ending.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Little Dorothy 6
John R. Neill (1913)

Yeah. Everything about that is pretty dreadful, not least because it seems to go against one of Baum’s major themes of pioneering girls setting forth on adventures! It undermines that completely.

It does. There’s a bit at the beginning where Dorothy makes a point of telling Toto, “If I get into trouble you must take care of me,” which is clear foreshadowing for the original conclusion – so it’s obvious Baum’s edit to attach a new ending wasn’t especially intricate.

Isn’t it interesting the publisher was giving such heavy editorial guidance, when that’s one of the major things we’ve been talking about – the absence of that in previous books.

Maybe they’d finally got wise after Sky Island’s patching machine. My guess is that Baum didn’t care terribly much whether he was undermined or not: he just wanted these to sell in the shops.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Cowardly Lion 5
John R. Neill (1913)

I actually liked The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger – to an extent. I liked it as much as I liked Baum’s fairy tales in The Magical Monarch of Mo. It’s kind of a fable, and it almost makes you laugh – but it would be horribly inappropriate to read to a small child now, and may well have been even then! There are all sorts of typical references to extreme violence and gags about death delivered by our favorite characters.

With a smile, though – that’s the odd thing. It’s all meant to be terribly funny, I think.

In reality, it’s kind of crude.

In all the various reprints of these stories down the line – as booklets, as jigsaw puzzles, as strange oversized British books – it seems like whenever they needed to cut two of the stories, these were the two to go. That’s a little odd. You’d think they’d try, above all else, to keep a story with Dorothy and Toto – the most audience-familiar characters – in the title. I wonder if someone saw these as the weaker of the stories. It might have been Britton. It might even have been Baum himself.

At least The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger has the structure of a very, very short fable. Something like The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman is like a little Silly Symphony cartoon short. “There lived in the land of Oz two queerly made men who were the best of friends.” That’s a good opening, isn’t it? It’s like you and me!

It is! And it’s a very Baumian opening. “They were so much happier when together that they were seldom apart; yet they liked to separate, once in a while, that they might enjoy the pleasure of meeting again.” He liked that kind of thing – simple, folksy philosophy.

Really, the story is just about two funny-looking people getting into trouble on a fishing trip!

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Jack Pumpkinhead 8
John R. Neill (1913)

Yup. There’s not really much to it, and there’s not much to Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse, either.

I can’t even remember what happens in that one, and I’ve only just read it.

Both stories are about our heroes having accidents and needing to be saved by the Wizard. There’s no real plot, just a singular incident, and there’s not much characterization, either, although I do like that Baum has created evil squirrels and well-meaning if slightly cranky crows. Neill has, of course, illustrated them accordingly. If it wasn’t for Neill’s pictures, I’m not sure where we would be.

There’s Ozma and the Little Wizard, where Ozma seems to be fairly ineffectual.

. . . And the Wizard has an obsession with enchanted buttons. Think about it.

Oh yes, that’s true! That’s . . . a bit weird. Funny that Baum would repeat that element in two stories. It does feel very fairy tale-ish, though. The bit with Crinklink’s animal head buttons felt like something authentically weird, so I was really quite keen on that story at that point – but it didn’t last very long.

No, thankfully, nothing about these lasts very long.

Fire Burn, and Clockwork Bubble . . .

If we’re taking the stories in turn, I think Tik-Tok and the Nome King is my favorite, and the only one I would reread.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Tiktok 7
John R. Neill (1913)

Me too. I’m a little bit curious why this story even exists, but I think I have an answer – Baum’s play The Tik-Tok Man of Oz would have just been on the stage, and it would have featured both Tik-Tok and the Metal Monarch (as the Nome King is called in the play), so whether or not Baum intended to continue using them in the book series, he saw them as popular and significant enough to use for publicity. If you notice, a large portion of the plot of this one involves the Nome King as a sort of maker of machine parts.

Right. That’s why Tik-Tok goes to him in the first place.

That’s not consistent with his earlier appearances in the books, but it’s consistent with the play. In addition, I could be wrong, but I don’t think Baum ever refers to Tik-Tok as being copper in this story. The only references are to iron and steel, and he’s called a “clockwork man” – again, what he’s frequently called in the play. You asked before why he’s blue – well, I think that’s to signify that he’s metal, but no longer specifically copper. We’ll never see a copper-colored Tik-Tok again; he’s always blue in color plates from here on out, something that utterly befuddled me as a child.

Oh, how interesting to see that influence of other versions of Oz coming back into the books again. It does get very theatrical, I guess, because it’s got a sort of parody of Macbeth, where the Nome King thinks he’s haunted by the ghost of Tik-Tok.

Yeah, I had a suspicion about that. I went and looked, and wouldn’t you know it? Baum liberally adapted the entire plot of this story from Act II of his play. Quelle surprise. Specifically, it’s from a sequence in Ozma of Oz – the play that later became The Tik-Tok Man of Oz – where the Shaggy Man manages to “blow up” Tik-Tok, and he has to be put back together again by the Metal Monarch. Afterwards, the Shaggy Man thinks Tik-Tok has come back to haunt him as a ghost. Sounds familiar, don’t you think?

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Tiktok 8
John R. Neill (1913)

Very. 

We’ll talk more about The Tik-Tok Man of Oz in a couple of months, but I agree with you – it’s a contained little story, and probably the best, although the publisher stuck their oar in again. Apparently, Britton didn’t like the idea of Tik-Tok being a ghost, so he asked Baum to use other language. Again, a great quote from a letter: “This story is bully and full of ginger right from the start . . .”

I’m going to start using that expression. This blog is full of ginger!

Aren’t we all. “. . . And it is a shame to make a suggestion, but we are fearful that the use of the word murder and the term ghost will be considered a grave departure from the regular way of L. Frank Baum and his fairy stories.” Suddenly, they got very worried about the death jokes.

That’s so funny! What Oz books have they been reading? It feels a bit like the modern issues with Harry Potter and anxiety over the supernatural. There are references in these stories to eyes being pecked out and babies being eaten, and yet it’s the idea of a robot coming back as a ghost that troubles these people!

. . . So, um, yay. That’s Little Wizard Stories!

That’s it, isn’t it.

If we want to stretch our analysis out just a little bit, it’s interesting to note that most of the Baum Oz books saw reprints – especially in the 1980s and ’90s, from Books of Wonder – that attempted to very, very nearly reproduce the look and feel of the original editions. Not so Little Wizard Stories of Oz. True, it was reprinted a few different times, but every one significantly altered the presentation. The colors, in particular, have been altered. The easiest thing to notice is the Wizard’s coat, I think; in 1914’s Little Wizard Stories of Oz, it’s a bright, royal blue. In all the reprints I’ve seen – at least, the ones with color pictures – it’s a shade of teal.

Huh!

1914 - Little Wizard Stories
John R. Neill (1913)

Tiny little differences like that affect the overall attractiveness of the stories, at least for me. I really like that first, collected 1914 edition. The typeface isn’t too big, and it’s entirely printed in dark blue instead of black, with gorgeous dark blue endpapers of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. The little story headers are in dark blue, too. Aesthetically, I find it very pleasant to look at, even if the pictures are sometimes organized in a way that poorly matches the flow of the story.

I think the formatting’s really nice in the little 1939 editions we both have, where they’re collected two stories to a book (see photos at the start of the blog). I love the large print. In the Books of Wonder edition, the art’s been reproduced with the lines a bit finer. I quite like the gaudiness of these colors sometimes, where it works, like in the Jack Pumpkinhead pictures. He’s completely made up of big blocks of color himself, isn’t he?

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Little Dorothy 2
John R. Neill (1913)

If you look, the major portrait of Jack and the Sawhorse was reused later in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. So was that picture of Dorothy and Toto finding the sign the says “Beware of Crinkilink” – but in the later book, it’s amended to “Beware of Yoop.” Fortunately, on that occasion, it’s not the Wizard in disguise.

You know, the thing that I find interesting about these stories, inasmuch as I find anything interesting about them, is the focus on the Wizard. He’s even in the title, and I assume, again, that’s to do with branding. He’s a completely different character from any depiction we’ve seen before, and I’ve been trying to work out why there’s this new obsession with him, because he’s not a very interesting character. Is it just because the original book is called The Wizard of Oz? It’s really strange.

More so the play, I think. Also, in newspapers at the time, Baum was called things like “The Wizard of Oz Man,” so the title got bandied about a lot. I think it may even be part of why he brought the Wizard back in the first place – but definitely, having brought the little fraud back, it’s why he makes him into a significant character: so he can justify using that name over and over and over! Reilly & Britton had no rights to The Wizard of Oz, but they could use the character – and refer to him – as much as they wanted.

That’s really interesting, because it explains the meaningless title: Little Wizard Stories of Oz.

It does. As a point of comparison, in 1939, Reilly & Lee insisted to Thompson that her book have the words “Wizard of Oz” in the title for marketing purposes, so it became Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz. That was directly to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the MGM film, when they couldn’t publish the original book itself.

Little Wizard Stories 1914 - Scarecrow 4
John R. Neill (1913)

That’s funny. I feel like it’s something I knew but wasn’t conscious of – the return of, and focus on, the Wizard. He is such an anti-hero in his original appearance, and he’s becoming more powerful and magical as the stories go on; here, he’s got Glinda’s role, basically. He’s the center of everything, and he just keeps popping up and saving the day with his awesome powers!

It just went on, too – even if you look at a book from the ’40s, the list of titles on the jacket flap starts with #1, The Land of Oz. It’s not until 1956 that Reilly & Britton could acknowledge The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because it finally went into public domain, and they could publish their own edition – and even then, they put it at the top of the list, unnumbered! In the meantime, they’d published cheaper, popular editions of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, and The Tin Woodman of Oz, so they’d been able to use those big, familiar characters’ names as publicity without breaking the law.

That’s some real food for thought in terms of how a reader’s perception of Oz might have been shaped by what was available and how it was publicized or disseminated. The Wizard is a major character in these stories, in the same way that there’s so much of the Woggle-Bug in Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz, but it’s not because Baum is necessarily interested in them at all. It’s all a sales pitch.

They’re Here, They’re Queer (Get Used to It)

IMG_20170622_160811That leads us naturally on to talk about Baum’s other attempt to promote the world of Oz through little tiny stories, Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz. I think it’s more than reasonable to discuss these alongside Little Wizard Stories, despite their being almost a decade apart.

Absolutely, especially as we’d missed them out before! I hadn’t quite noticed that they should have come earlier.

I admit – I skipped them! I thought to myself, shall I torture Nick with these between Marvelous Land and Ozma? No, I thought, that’s when he ups and leaves the project, never to return . . . .

Ha! Well, it’s funny that you say that, because I found them oddly charming. Of course, that’s leaving out the frequent, awful racial stereotypes, and the format, which obliges them to be completely ephemeral nonsense little stories. In comparison with the Little Wizard Stories,  which are supposedly promoting and focusing on those characters, here they seem warmer, funnier, and more enjoyable to read.

I agree with that – the Queer Visitors stories are quite charming, but in a very specific way. Personally, I find that they need to be surrounded by pictures, as was intended. (Here, thanks to Wikipedia, is a full-page example of one of the original strips.) Whether you’re reading the original, gigantic newspaper pages with Walt McDougall’s art, or you’re looking at the heavily rewritten book adaptation illustrated by Dick Martin, or you’ve even got one of the collections with pictures by Eric Shanower – well, it doesn’t really matter, and it’s not just because they’re all pretty good. The illustrations count for a lot because the stories are almost at the level of having been written on the back of a napkin. That doesn’t mean they’re “bad” stories, necessarily; they’re just very slight. Particularly once Baum gets over “What Did the Woggle-Bug Say?” – his bizarre attempt at ending each story on a trivia question, so readers could send in an answer for prize money – they’re very moralistic.

IMG_20170627_073616
Walt McDougall (1904)

Yeah. The “What Did the Woggle-Bug Say?” ending manages to drain the last drops of enjoyment you can get out of these. What feels like it’s winding up to a punchline always ends up being a sort of general knowledge quiz. It’s really banal! That’s what I meant about the format: they’re very slight, but also, they just end, in a weird, David Lynch-esque crash-zoom on the wrong thing. Very odd.

More than anything, I like the idea of Queer Visitors – which is to say, I love the idea that Ozma sends all her friends in the Gump as official ambassadors to our world, and they go on a whistle-stop tour of the United States, stopping by Mars and Jupiter along the way, and they have all sorts of adventures and eventually meet Santa Claus. Because . . . why not?

Visitors 4-5
Walt McDougall (1904)

I think the weirdest thing about it is that Baum didn’t rewrite them into a novel, because “the Oz characters come to America” seems like the obvious Oz novel to write. Nobody’s ever done a TV series like this, either, or a graphic novel, and I don’t get why. It’s a collision with so much potential; it’s funny, it’s cute. It’s even more Muppety than the Oz books are.

Oh, it is a very Muppets Take Manhattan concept, isn’t it? There is some great imagery, too. I really love the idea of the Tin Woodman being turned into a giant magnet, and that the Scarecrow can just magick up a car.

There’s a hapless Jack Pumpkinhead as well, and a great bit where they all go off to find a missing child and bring back about thirty of them, which is very funny.

IMG_20170627_071755
Walt McDougall (1904)

I even like Walt McDougall’s Gump, who – if you look at him – was clearly the inspiration for the Gump’s design in Return to Oz, as opposed to Neill’s. In newspaper page after newspaper page, McDougall’s Gump has speech bubbles that say pathetic little things like, “Is it over yet?” or “Can we go home now?” It’s great. Yeah. The whole strip is a really fun idea.

McDougall, Martin, and More

Staying on McDougall, I really liked his work, actually. It reminded me of how we talked a couple of times about Baum not liking Neill’s work, because it is wasn’t comic enough. I could really see McDougall doing wacky illustrations for the Oz novels, and you know, that working kind of nicely. They would’ve been such different books, but I can see it working. You can visualize him doing something like Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a cross between Little Nemo in Slumberland and Raggedy Ann and Andy, with all of the violence in it made absurd and romantic.

Yeah, I suppose so, although I personally think Johnny Gruelle – who wrote and drew the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories – has a style very similar to Neill’s. I don’t know. I like McDougall’s art for what it is; I wouldn’t want whole books this way. I know, though, that we have different perspectives on what makes appealing children’s book art. Plus, it’s simply very hard for me to wrench myself away from Neill – my Oz is Neill’s Oz, with very little exception.

IMG_20170627_072627
Walt McDougall (1904)

Well, I thought that McDougall’s art was nice, although Dorothy’s completely bizarre.

She’s been drawn to resemble a child version of Anna Laughlin, the actress who played her in the 1902 musical. (W.W. Denslow tried his own take on the same thing with his Scarecrow and Tin-Man comic strip, “Dorothy’s Christmas Tree,” which went to press at roughly the exact same time. Competitive fellows, weren’t they?) Again, that would have been the popular conception of Dorothy at the time, so it makes sense – rather like how any depiction of Dorothy today looks more or less like Judy Garland, even without specific likeness rights. 

IMG_20170627_072433
W. W. Denslow (1904)

The Woggle-Bug looks like an actual insect, as well . . . yeah, they’re more animated and less statuesque than Neill. They’re great. I really liked the version illustrated by Dick Martin, too. That was really warm and rich and nicely rewritten by Jean Kellogg.

Yeah, rewritten to where they’re actual stories! I loved it when I was a kid. I used to take it out from my library and just obsessively go through the pages over and over again. As you say, Martin’s art is lovely – a slightly more “cute,” 1950s take on Neill’s designs – with an appealing, limited color palette. The success of 1960’s The Visitors from Oz led directly to storybook adaptations of the first four Baum novels by Kellogg and Martin the following year. They even publicized the 1960 Visitors with a little cardboard Gump which you could punch out and build! Wouldn’t that be wonderful to have?

Wow! Yeah, it’s good to have the Gump back in it. He needed his own book.

Has anyone ever done that? Get on it, Nick!

I’m going to start right now.

I also used to listen to the cassette version of the Ray Bolger LP (which you can listen to here!). He narrated a handful of the original Baum stories, including – unsurprisingly – the one about magnetism and the one about the magic car.

Oh, I’d forgotten that existed!

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Dick Martin (1960)

I think you’re right that the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz stories are actually more charming than Little Wizard Stories of Oz, which surprised me because presumably, Baum had more actual time to compose and refine the latter. He probably just didn’t care as much by that point.

It’s possible. It’s difficult to write those short little things as well, isn’t it?

He’s not a terrible short story writer. His American Fairy Tales are not bad – quaint and moralistic, yes, but not bad. There’s just not a lot of life in the Little Wizard Stories, at least not for my money.

No, although they’re certainly an insight into the wider Oz franchise, and a reminder that it’s really not focused on the books. The books become the major form, but there are plays, and newspaper comics, and everything. The novels are almost spin-offs, in a way. There isn’t a strict canonicity to these stories at all; Baum’s ideas are proliferating all over the place, and each time they pop up in little promotional ways, they’re slightly different again, to suit whatever it is that Baum’s trying to flog off the back of his van.

It’s around this time that Baum completely gives over to Oz as his way to make money, so over the next couple of books, for instance, we’ll be talking about his forays into the silent film industry. What’s interesting is that following that last great push into other media, by the end of Baum’s life, it had just become the books and very little else. Partly that’s due to their age, and partly that’s due to Baum’s health. In hindsight, it’s easy to only remember the books, when for the majority of Baum’s life, they were a Harry Potter-level phenomenon that took a lot of different avenues within the popular entertainment landscape.

I’m definitely looking forward to Patchwork Girl more than I was, with all the mess and event of a novel, characters having conversations and bickering rather than getting on all the time. That’s one of the problems of these stories: they just kind of…oh, I don’t know anymore. Cut this from the blog!

IMG_20170627_072010I think you’ve segued quite nicely into the ending, actually.

Well, I was trying to. I was certainly trying to.

Is that it?

Yes. Can we go home now?

What do you think? Would you have followed the flight of the Gump in the Philadelphia North American? Do you have fond memories of Crinklink, the terrible squirrel king, and the mischevious imps? Do you ever wonder whether your buttons can hear you? Tell us in the comments section below!

Next Time

Patchwork Girl 1923 - Illo 04THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ

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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.

Sky Island (1912)

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!

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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.

Right.

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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

The Sea Fairies (1911)

Sea Fairies 1911 CoverAfter The Emerald City of Oz (1910), L. Frank Baum felt confident that he had put a cap on the story of his most famous fairyland, and he was ready to depart on new travels of the imagination. Although, by this point, he had published a significant number of books under pseudonym for a variety of audiences, he had it in mind specifically to start a new series under his own name. These new fantasy adventures, featuring the team of the Dorothy-like young girl Mayre “Trot” Griffiths and her friend, the old sailor Cap’n Bill, would take Baum’s readers to new fantasy lands outside the world of Oz. Only two were published – The Sea Fairies (1911) and Sky Island (1912) – and a third partially completed before Baum and his publishers were forced to face the steep decline in sales. A Baum book did not, in and of itself, guarantee a hit – it had to contain the word Oz.

Here are BURZEE, our intention was originally to consider the two Trot and Cap’n Bill novels together. However, the more we read, the more we realized they were each deserving of their own discussion. Join us as we leave these familiar shores and dive, straight down, to the bottom of the sea . . . .

IMG_20170322_102504You’ve obviously never read this book before, Nick, says Sarah. Did you have any preconceptions beforehand?

IMG_8687Well, strangely enough, I did, Nick says. And for years, too! Although The Sea Fairies is a book I never even thought I’d get a chance to read, I always felt that I should. That’s because of Allen Eyles’ little reference in The World of Oz (1985) to its movie rights having been optioned. Obviously, Eyles was anticipating the critical and commercial smash that Return to Oz somehow never quite achieved. I don’t know if anything is actually known now about who wanted to make The Sea Fairies into a movie, why, and how they planned to go about it . . . .

That’s funny. Until you mentioned it, I misremembered that bit in World of Oz as referring to a film of Sky Island, which – to my mind, anyway – is a much more cinematic book than this one. Either way, no, I don’t think anything’s ever been said about these mystery plans. I almost can’t imagine what a film of Sea Fairies would be like, except perhaps a sort of 1980s Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Well, that’s just it! For a long time I was totally prepared for this to be a grand, exciting adventure, perfect for a 1980s multiplex audience, in the vein of any of the better Oz books.

sea fairies 1960s
Lois Axeman (1969)

I can’t say I expected a whiz-bang blockbuster, but my own expectations were thwarted, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever read The Sea Fairies once before, thanks to my childhood library – their copy had the impossibly ugly 1960s cover shown here. I can’t say it really grabbed my interest, but it was Baum, so I read it. What’s interesting is that I only remembered it as a nice story where Trot and Cap’n Bill wander around and meet some fish – which does, indeed, adequately describe the first half. I have no memory of anything from the second half at all! Isn’t that strange?

Suspicious, I would say!

Mother Nature’s Son

Sea Fairies 1911 Frontispiece
John R. Neill (1911)

Something that’s a little bit interesting about Sea Fairies is that Baum starts it off by telling this old sailors’ tale about mermaids – a little fairy tale in and of itself – and then he spends the whole book working to undercut it. We have a new little girl protagonist, Trot – I don’t know where Baum comes up with these names – and her protector figure, Cap’n Bill. How does that strike you as the setup for a whole new series?

I think it fails, almost from the first page, because it doesn’t even try very hard. There’s no background for Trot’s character at all, and not very much for Cap’n Bill, which seems surprising given that he’s a sailor and this is a book about the sea! That’s one of the things that struck me as odd about the novel. In a funny sort of way, “sea fairies” seems to be a pun on “seafarers,” and heroic sea adventures were hugely popular at the time. Yet there’s a kind of incuriousness about sailors, and anyone else’s experience of the sea, beyond Baum’s imaginative one. It doesn’t feel interested in the romance of the sea at all.

I found myself wondering why Baum thought this could be the launch of a series. I haven’t sat and read them extensively, but by this point Baum had pseudonymously published a number of nature-oriented fairy stories for small children . . .

Isn’t Policeman Bluejay one of those?

Yes. They involve two little kids named Twinkle and Chubbins who are transformed so they can communicate with, and live among, birds, woodland animals, and so on. They’re supposed to be very environmentally-oriented for the early part of the 20th century, and I found myself wondering if The Sea Fairies was originally intended to be that kind of story – something shorter and more intended for a very young audience. Somewhere about halfway through, Baum decided to make it his next major novel and completely changed course. That’s my best guess, but admittedly, I have no direct evidence. I do think it’s a very thin book: perfectly pleasant to read, but it doesn’t linger long in the memory.

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John R. Neill (1911)

After a few chapters of, “Here’s the swordfish, and here’s the inevitable puns about them,” something clicked for me. I stopped expecting the multiplex summer smash of 1986 and decided it was part of the genre – now out of fashion, with good reason – of ‘fuzzy’ nature books, designed to play on the wonder and imagination of the child but not really to inform them at all. It actually reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book (1944), which I used to own. I loved both Blyton and Baum as a kid, and they weren’t all that different given their tremendous output and the sense of responsibility they felt towards their readers. In her nature book, Blyton tells you why buds are sticky, and why the tips of daisies are pink – but she says they’re sticky or pink because pixies painted them with glue or paint. Sea Fairies mostly felt like that: a didactic, well-meaning but shamelessly misleading sort of text.

I was reminded of favorite childhood author of my own. Mine is an American named Thornton Burgess, who made a career out of writing nature stories for children. He wrote a book called Old Mother West Wind (1910) and its many, many, many, many sequels, which are about the American woodlands and the creatures who live there – rabbits, foxes, raccoons, muskrats, possums, and so on. The difference is that Burgess was a naturalist who was very committed to depicting genuine animal behavior, although he dramatized it with anthropomorphic animal characters in fable-style situations. Most of his books are collections of short stories in that format: The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk, and so on. There are a couple of books he wrote in the ‘20s and ‘30s, though, that are even more realistic and attempt to show real-world animal behavior and scientific understanding of the early-to-mid-20th century. This book reminds me strongly of that.

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John R. Neill (1911)

I really got lost trying to identify some of the fish Baum was talking about – the argonauts, the devilfish, and some of the others – assuming that those were archaic names for real animals. It only occurred to me about a week after I finished the book that a lot of it was probably stuff Baum made up! I should have been clued in by Neill’s highly fanciful art, but I got so wrapped up in the idea that this was a naturalist’s book that I forgot Baum wasn’t really a naturalist! Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely! A lot of the book feels like the “inhabitants of the underwater world” are portrayed in such outrageously unrealistic form that Baum and Neill let themselves off the hook: “This is just a way to get kids into the subject. We’re not going to try to make any claims, or be accurate, because then it will look bad…” Ultimately, I excused them a lot of the nonsense, because I thought there was an earnest feeling behind it somewhere.

The Underwater Menace

I am completely willing to believe that you and I have jointly discovered the entire reason for the first half of the book. I think if the whole book had been written in this way, I would write it off as a nice little exercise in getting kids interested in the ocean. The problem is that halfway through the book, Satan shows up – and that changes things entirely.

Well, you call that a problem; I call it merciful release! I was ready for something to happen and was grateful for whatever Baum came up with, which still isn’t all that much in the way of actual adventure. 

True! No, the villain isn’t really called “Satan” – he’s Zog – and very little happens even in the second half of the book, but wouldn’t you agree with me that the tone turns darker very, very suddenly?

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John R. Neill (1911)

Yes, but first – am I getting mixed up? Who is this in the picture? Is he the incredibly beautiful boy, Sacho?

I think so – at least, I think that’s who he’s supposed to be. I had the exact same question. 

He looks just like Jikki, the servant from Queen Zixi of Ix. He’s not a boy!

It does make me wonder if something was altered in the text after Neill turned in the illustrations. 

That’s the only thing that would make sense of it, which is sad, because I like Baum’s creation of a strange, beautiful, bland optimist. There’s something a bit sinister about him.

I think Sacho may be the most sinister character in the book. He’s a waif who has been nearly drowned and then saved and indoctrinated by Zog. He reminds me very much of A Wrinkle in Time. Have you ever read that?

A long time ago.

There’s an episode where one of the protagonists, five-year-old Charles Wallace, has his mind taken over by an evil intelligence. He becomes the mouthpiece for that force. That’s what Sacho reminds me of – this small child speaking obviously nihilistic yet upbeat philosophies. Plus, the fact that he has gills in his neck is undeniably creepy. He’s the first real sign that the narrative is changing to something much darker, so I find him the most sinister figure in the book.

I do wonder if there was meant to be something satirical about him, and the way he isn’t just subservient or lacking in identity – he has capitulated and changed his entire worldview to be unthinkingly positive. It feels like it’s his own philosophy; he’s complicit. I don’t know in what sense that had any significance for Baum. 

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 6
John R. Neill (1911)

I don’t know either. What do you make of Cap’n Joe? That’s also quite eerie to me – that scene of Cap’n Bill meeting his dead brother under the sea, and . . . he’s a fish.

Yes, he does actually say, “I am a fish!” I would love to credit it with being sinister and macabre, but instead it just felt to me like a weird, boring gag that has the effect of making Cap’n Bill feel even less of an interesting character than he did originally. Despite Baum’s own history of seemingly siding with the working man, it seems that sailors – for him – are just comic figures.

What do you make of Zog himself? I see him so clearly as being Satan – or Lucifer – or whatever you want to call the Christian interpretation of the Devil. Particularly in the early scenes, every last bit of description of his appearance aligns with the typical iconography of the Devil. I’m curious why Baum decided to go this route, but more than anything, Zog proves that evil incarnate isn’t terribly interesting. The expression of Zog’s awfulness through a character like Sacho is far more effective than Zog himself, and the whole part-man, part-beast, part-fish revelation isn’t terribly surprising. I was far more shocked by Anko disposing of him by squeezing him into “jelly”!

There’s something so pathetic about his end, which you can either read as Baum’s comment on the banality of evil – that you can just knock the horrible man-thing on the head and he’ll be gone – or a lack of imagination. 

Yeah, I think Baum got bored. If this were a Disney film, Zog would escape to the surface, grow massively in size, and start shooting lightning beams from his eyes. That’s the end of The Little Mermaid! He wouldn’t just escape his palace to be squished. It’s an amazing anti-climax to the book, and it makes Anko a little more disturbing than we would have given him credit for otherwise. I’m getting used to this with Baum, you know? “Oh, I’m getting bored now. Time to end the book.”

I just find it really funny that there can be an anti-climax in a book where nothing happens! Nothing is built up and nothing ever comes of it. 

Would’ve been a hell of a movie, right?

Part of Your World

Zog is the closest that Baum has ever come to portraying a wholly evil, demonic force, and as much as there is a switch in tone, it is slightly foregrounded with some talk of this evil fairly early on. It fits quite well with the idea of the fairies as part of the mystic structure of Baum’s world. In particular, the idea of the mermaids as sea fairies is a kind of continuation of what he’s said about fairies in the past and his use of them in books like The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

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John R. Neill (1911)

You mean the part where Dorothy and her friends see the Mist Maidens?

Yes. In that moment, it does feel sacred to see these creatures, and they’re not treated as imaginary beings as much as glimpses of something ethereal. That relates to the Phanfasms in The Emerald City of Oz; again, you get the impression Baum takes them seriously in a way he doesn’t take most of his creations. It feels like there is a kind of structure to Baum’s universe outside of this book, and bizarrely, Zog as a Satanic fish-goat fits into that perfectly.

Since you bring up mysticism, and fairies, what do you think of Baum’s use of mermaids?

Well, never let it be said I don’t prepare for these blogs of ours, Sarah. I turned to my trusty Dictionary of Fairies and Folklore (1976) by Katharine Briggs, and read the entry on mermaids. What’s clear is that in all their various manifestations in folklore, they are less kind and companionable than at any time in The Sea Fairies.

More than almost any other children’s author, we know that Baum was familiar with and influenced by Hans Christian Andersen, and I think it’s impossible to think about Sea Fairies without thinking about what he may have read of mermaids from Andersen. The Little Mermaid is a Christianized figure of piety; that’s the entire point of the story. Isn’t there an implication at the end that she receives a soul, unlike all the other mermaids?

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 5
John R. Neill (1911)

From memory, I believe she goes up to Heaven, basically, and she’s happy about that. I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of it. Mermaids are much older than Andersen, of course. They’re mythical – are they in the Bible?

I don’t think so. They do, however, appear in mythologies across the world, stretching back to the ancient Middle East. Somewhere along the line, Western culture has hodge-podged together attributes from a number of different distinct cultures into a single creature, including the sirens of Greece and the selkies of Celtic mythology. They lure you into the sea, usually, to your doom – it’s only from the Victorian era on up that there’s been a shift in how they are presented.

They’re intrinsically sexual beings, as well.

They’re sexual beings that will kill you. Yeah. The more you look at it, the more you wonder if Baum was inspired by mermaid lore at all. I wonder if he may have been thinking of another, more Victorian brand of watery fairy tale: Charles Kingsley’s famous novel The Water-Babies (1863) seems to hover on the periphery of our vision. He might also have been inspired by Edward H. Cooper’s now-forgotten Wyemarke and the Sea-Fairies, which was published in 1899 by the same British publishing house as Baum’s own Mother Goose in Prose; the two books were highlighted together in a number of print advertisements. Both Kingsley’s and Cooper’s works seem to focus on children who are turned into water-dwelling creatures to learn moral lessons and have adventures.

Making a Splash!

The question of the mermaids reveals some interesting assumptions about how we read these books and how they would have been presented on the market. A great deal of readers’ interest in mermaids would be visual; they are, after all, a particularly beautiful way of depicting the female form. They’re very easily aestheticized in that way. We overstate, perhaps, the role of Baum as author when these books are saturated with purely visual material. And when you look at the beautiful images John R. Neill came up with, it makes complete sense that we keep coming back to the mermaids. He was obviously, if you will, in his element with this kind of imagery. His work is just amazing.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 8
John R. Neill (1911)

I would say that I enjoyed this book twice as much because of Neill’s pictures. They are particularly lush. As you say, his obvious joy in depicting the feminine figure is given its full sway in this book.

It’s a bit like when we read Dot and Tot of Merryland. There was a sense that Baum had written to Denslow’s strengths in that book, even though the story wasn’t very strong. In this book, you could really think of Neill as a kind of co-author. Maybe we should think of him that way in future. They obviously worked well as a team, and whether it’s true or not, it feels like Baum is writing for his illustrator here – thankfully, compared to Dot and Tot, with much better outcome.

I don’t know what the exact circumstances were surrounding The Sea Fairies. I do know that Baum could still be annoyed by Neill’s work several years later and tried to get him off the books; it was only in the last few years of his life that he started complimenting Neill’s art, and perhaps he was simply resigned to it by then. Mostly, it was the publishers Reilly and Britton who insisted on pairing Neill with Baum for . . . reasons we don’t know, actually. Maybe he was cheap. Whatever the reason, I am inclined to think they had better judgment than Baum, because honestly? I don’t know how this book works without Neill.

The idea of setting an entire book underwater, in an entirely natural world, feels like a formula for creating a beautifully illustrated book, and in many ways that’s also its biggest problem. The Sea Fairies is really superficial – essentially, a series of tableaux – with nothing at the heart of it in terms of Trot and her friends.

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 8
John R. Neill (1911)

I think “a series of tableaux” describes it really well. Even Neill’s color plates are, far more so than usual, a series of tableaux! If you look at them, they are beautiful but resoundingly Victorian images, far and away beyond almost all of his imagery for the Oz books, and clearly intended to be more aesthetic works of art than they are depictions of storybook scenes. This is the perfect book for someone whose strength is in depicting movement through lines. All of his work for this book is breathtakingly Art Nouveau, very much a companion to The Emerald City of Oz in terms of the intricacy and ornateness of the art. It’s almost the last time we’ll see that from Neill, too.

Yeah. They’re more decorations than illustrations, aren’t they?

Oh, that’s exactly it. They’re more decorations than illustrations. Did I ever tell you I once made one of these plates into a picture postcard? It was perfect; I didn’t change a thing. The plates are so detached from the story, even though they purportedly depict moments from it, that they almost function on their own. The two-tone color, the metallic borders – it’s all beautiful, but it makes The Sea Fairies feel much more archaic than the Oz books we’ve read.

Yes. We’re going to see a sharp contrast with the art of Sky Island, which is very different.

I was also kind of struck by the fact that as much as Neill enjoys drawing fish – and women’s bodies, frankly – there are maybe two images of Zog in the whole book. They’re not even particularly striking ones. Anko is sort of a cartoon character, too, so you can tell where Neill’s interest really lay.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 4
John R. Neill (1911)

Absolutely! The illustrations of Anko are bizarre, really, because they’re so carelessly done compared to everything else. He’s supposed to be the great sea serpent of the sea, you know – but he looks a bit like the Cheshire Cat.

He’s what I remember from reading the book as a kid, to be honest. Those giant eyes! He looks like a refugee from Sonic the Hedgehog!

Fishing for Compliments?

It’s fairly obvious why this book didn’t sell as well as the Oz books, right?

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 1
John R. Neill (1911)

Lots of reasons. I mean, there’s the fact that the Oz books weren’t a series, really; they were a phenomenon. They were a great first novel, and they were a massive stage hit, and then they were something between the two, which is what we have left. There’s also the fact that the characters in the Oz books are invested with so much complexity and human quality, and oddness, and humor – but Baum doesn’t seem interested in any of these new characters beyond the pages of this book. What was your feeling?

I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it, because – well, I hadn’t been looking forward to it. I just because I remembered it as a series of encounters with fish! There’s something naturally in the way Baum writes that appeals to me and makes me want to keep reading, even when the story is so thin.

I understand that completely.

I guess I am surprised the sheer beauty of the volume didn’t sell more copies, but it was fairly well reviewed in the press; there was no great backlash. I think it simply took a hit from not having the word “Oz” in the title, and it probably wasn’t a remarkable enough book to rise above that. It’s obvious that whatever tricks Reilly & Britton tried to make it visually appealing to a buyer, they couldn’t overcome the fact that the audience just wanted more Oz.

I wonder if there was also more children’s fiction being produced at this time, and the competition was so high it needed to be a big brand like Oz to stand out. The Secret Garden was published in 1911, as was the novel of Peter Pan (Peter and Wendy), suggesting a growing children’s book culture.

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John R. Neill (1920 reprint cover)

That’s interesting. I can think of a whole slew of famous children’s novels that had come out within five years or so leading up to 1911 – The Wind in the Willows, Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children, White Fang, and more – so it’s definitely a different landscape than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz faced in 1900. Are you pleased you read The Sea Fairies?

Absolutely. I was always curious about it and as it turned out, it’s a really weird book, and beautiful, too. I did enjoy it while it lasted – particularly once it went bonkers in the second half. How about you?

I think this is a case where I like the art better than I like the story, and . . . I understand, now, why I only read this once as a child and did not campaign for my own copy. I don’t think I saw a need. I enjoyed revisiting it, but – unlike the Oz books – I don’t see a strong reason to ever revisit it again. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does.

Would you give this book to a child?

Not a hope! It’s very of its time.

I agree.

Having said that, though, if you think of it as a game of two halves – a book as equally about its illustrations as its text – I would consider looking at the book with an imaginative child, one who was into mermaids and fantasy, and showing them the pictures. Neill’s work is extraordinary, and I think that in a funny sort of way, it’s one of the non-Oz Baum books I could see being reprinted in a nice edition just because the art is so good – which is really counter to everything I’ve thought about the other books we’ve read so far!

What a marvelous idea. Yes – wouldn’t The John R. Neill Coloring Book of Mermaids be a beautiful thing?

Yes, it would.

sea devilWell, that’s it, Nick. I feel we’re winding down. I would just like to say here that I’m very pleased we managed to get through this entire discussion without mentioning Zog’s henchmen, the nefarious Sea Devils. Why do they seem so familiar?

Evidently there are really things called sea devils, and probably the name – sea devils – inspired most of this book. Sea devils vs. sea fairies – a battle between the two! That’s kind of the story, so in a funny sort of way they are directly inspired by Baum looking at sea lore, and . . . wait . . . you just wanted to end this on a silly Doctor Who gag, didn’t you?

Yes, Nick.

Right, then. Carry on.

What would you do? Would you rescue The Sea Fairies from the vast ocean of forgotten books, or allow it to sink to the watery depths of lost memory? Tell us in the comments section below!

Next Time

Sky Island 1912 Plate 3SKY ISLAND

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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.

The Emerald City of Oz (1910)

emerald-city-1910-coverIn 1910, Oz came to its natural end. Eager to write new stories about new fantasy lands, L. Frank Baum put a cap on the Oz stories with a tale that sees Dorothy move permanently to the Emerald City with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. At the same time, the Nome King – who holds a grudge against both Dorothy and Ozma – plots to conquer Oz by means of an underground tunnel and a host of evil allies. He nearly succeeds, thwarted only by some quick thinking from the Scarecrow and the Fountain of Oblivion that sits at the center of the Emerald City. Soon afterward, Glinda the Good arrives to announce her new plan to protect Oz from outsiders: an invisibility barrier. “We are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world,” writes Dorothy at the book’s conclusion, “but Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.” That’s it. That’s all.

. . . Or is it?

wp-1485833241872.jpgWell, Nick, asks Sarah, did you like this book when you were a kid?

It’s funny you should ask that, says Nick. I don’t really have much memory of it, but I do have a photograph of me with the book, which you can see on the front page of this site (and which I’m replicating here). In a way, it’s proof I did read the Oz books, and didn’t just dream it! I remembered odd things about the plot – and I actually remembered it being much more complex than it is . . . .

The only thing I strongly remembered about it – I mean, I knew what happened in this book, but the only strong specific memory of it – was the Nome King ordering his generals through the meat slicer. I genuinely remembered that from some 20 years ago: reading it and thinking, “Uhh, that’s dreadful.”

wp-1485833330822.jpgYeah, there’s more cruelty to the Nome King this time – and that’s before he takes on underlings who want to slaughter the people of Oz just because they’re happy.

I think if I had been reading some of the other Baum books carefully at the time I would have noticed similar scenes, but for some reason, I didn’t. Perhaps Emerald City was one of the last Oz books I reread before giving up on them as a teenager.

My childhood copy of Emerald City is physically warped – I must have left it out in the rain or something because it’s really swollen up and looks huge. I remember it being like War and Peace . . . which it is, I suppose! On the cover, it had the most dreary photo of Fairuza Balk standing next to a mirror, and I didn’t care; I suppose I saw it as a serious photo for a serious book.

That’s all right. My own childhood edition was the Dover one – you know, the one with the 1930s cover of a rather leggy Ozma riding the Sawhorse sidesaddle.

. . . And the Sawhorse is sort of sprinting – in a way that neither of them do, even a bit, in the novel?

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John R. Neill (1929)

That’s the one. That’s the cover I associate with The Emerald City of Oz! It’s funny what sticks in your brain.

Given that I’d probably only read the book once or twice as a child (on a trampoline, in the garden), I really clearly remembered Miss Cuttenclip and the Utensia trial. As in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, it seems like a real callback to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Well, the Utensia trial is just an unending series of puns. Each sentence could end with a “ba-dum-tish!” cymbal crash. It’s very funny, but it’s so rapid-fire it feels a little out of place with the rest of the book.

Dorothy basically wanders away, gets lost, goes to Utensia, Bunbury and Bunnybury, is threatened with death by most of them, eats a few of them and goes back, and everybody’s just like, “Oh, we knew you’d be all right,” and the plot resumes.

There is that great line from the Wizard: “Have you been having adventures again?”

I do like the thought that Dorothy even wanders away from the adventure we’re reading to have more adventures. Maybe in other books there are unseen moments where Dorothy just goes through a door nobody else noticed, has a book’s worth of adventures, and comes back in time for the next chapter to start.

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John R. Neill (1910)

Well, here they’re utterly pointless adventures, and they have no reason to be there – except to give John R. Neill a reason to draw rabbits. He seems to have had a real affinity for rabbits – if you look at his other work in illustration and advertising, he often finds a way to work bunnies in, and they’re always lovely bunnies at that. We’ll see more bunnies from him in later books, too. In general, he seems to have really enjoyed drawing animals, although – like Denslow – he makes an odd assumption that a lion is about the size of an elephant.

At least with the bunnies of Bunnybury, Baum has provided him with justification for drawing animals in clothes, which seems to be his obsession. He puts a little jacket on the alligator that Guph has to jump over . . . .

. . . And there was Eureka and her tailcoat, back in Dorothy and the Wizard.

Yes, and her flamboyant court clothes. How strange!

The Talented Mr. Neill

An admission for you: when I was a kid, the much-beloved Books of Wonder editions came out at the rate of one a year, and I think by the time The Emerald City of Oz came out, I must have been getting into being a teenager, and maybe a little bit out of Oz, at least for a while. As a result, I never bought it. My collection ended at The Road to Oz for the longest time. 

Oh dear! That doesn’t sound like a good idea. Reverse that decision as soon as possible.

I did – years and years later, when I had to really hunt for it! That’s a very long-winded way of telling you that this is the first time I’ve ever read the book with color pictures, which has been an extra-special treat.

This is the first time I’ve ever read it with pictures of any kind!

Whoa. There you go!

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John R. Neill (1910)

It’s interesting, actually. I quite enjoyed reading The Road to Oz in the edition I used to have, with no pictures, because I was obliged – or allowed – to imagine things for myself. Those more mannered Victorian illustrations can sometimes prevent you fully immersing yourself in the book, I think. (Editorial note: Sarah disagrees and is shaking her head.) This time, that just didn’t happen. I settled quite quickly on the Books of Wonder edition, and these illustrations are my favorite of all we’ve seen so far, by a long way.

It’s funny you say that! As I was about halfway through the book, I was thinking to myself, “This must surely be the nicest designed Oz book yet.” It has the nicest pictures, it has the nicest layout, it has a really strong balance of color and black and white. I especially like the little headings that Neill does for each chapter – it all adds up to a really nice aesthetic object.

Something about the way that the characters are depicted feels less stylized. Last time you told me how there was a bit of tension between Neill and Baum, that Baum was concerned that Neill’s pictures didn’t quite represent his characters, who are just so full of life. For me, these feel warmer – more likeable and more animated, I guess, than in previous books.

These have a nice fluidity about them, which I think combines Neill’s sheer penmanship with that sense of movement. He’s starting to strike a really nice balance, and I think as we go on, you’ll see him loosen up more and more and more and more, to the point where, somewhere in the middle of the Thompsons, he becomes very cartoony – which I don’t like as much. Normally, though, I would say that the late Baum period – Tik-Tok of Oz onward – is my favorite Neill period, too, because he’s weighing out a slightly more simplified look with a lot of nice illustrative detail. I think you’re right; this is the first time it’s really just firing on all cylinders.

wp-1485833888476.jpgIn a peculiar yet wonderful coincidence – and don’t those just keep happening to us, with this blog? – our conversation about Neill dovetails nicely with an experience I had just after Christmas. I was thrilled to discover that one of John R. Neill’s original Oz illustrations – the Chapter Three title heading for Tik-Tok of Oz, featuring Glinda – was up for auction in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Fortunately, my parents still live there, so I was able to go back and get a short audience with the picture during the auction preview. It was rather like crashing a wedding: furtive, a bit illicit, and altogether very exciting. As you can see, I was pretty thrilled. How amazing to see the original work of one of my favorite artists, and in such a gorgeous character portrait, too.

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John R. Neill (1914)

I really love everything about this story: I love that you made that pilgrimage, I love that you defied the stuffy atmosphere to get your picture taken, and I love the look of excitement in your eyes. Also, of course, I love getting a (second-hand) look at Neill’s original artwork, how natural his line work is, and how perfect that composition. I really feel like we’re looking at Neill’s handwriting. He’s showing off his love of Art Nouveau, pre-Raphaelite imagery, and just the joy of making something modest in size but beautiful in effect.

What impressed me most was how few remnants there are of any pencil lines or pre-work; mostly, it’s just a collection of quick, sharp pen strokes that build up a beautiful picture. Comparing it to a 1920 edition of the book on site – and later, to the Books of Wonder edition – it’s startling what a drop in quality there is when his work is reproduced. And that leads into our next topic . . . .

Every Book a Wonder

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John R. Neill (1910)

Out of the entire design of Emerald City, my only complaint is that a couple of the watercolors, while very pretty, are so detailed, and seen at such a distance from their subjects, that I can’t always make out what’s going on. My eye just doesn’t naturally pick up all the detail. Take a look, for example, at the plate of Glinda, Dorothy, and Ozma. Let me know when you see the Nome King.

Are you sure you mean the picture I think you mean? He’s not…oh!

Yeah, there you are – exactly. One day, I just opened it up and went, “Good grief, there he is!” 

That is funny. I had a similar feeling about other pictures, and I did wonder if that was anything to do with how they’ve been printed in the modern edition. Take the illustration of Dorothy being apprehended by an army of spoons. Look in the tree above her; there are houses of some kind in the branches above the tree.

It’s very hard to make out. Honestly, it kind of gets lost in that sea of green that makes up the background.

There’s Billina in that picture, as well, and I hadn’t spotted her the first time.

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John R. Neill (1910)

Oh, she is, isn’t she! No, I hadn’t noticed her at all. They’re complicated pictures, and I’d say it’s likely Reilly & Britton never replicated them at the quality Neill painted them. If you look, for instance, at the 1939 Junior Edition – like last month, when we showed a few colored pictures from The Road to Oz? – they’ve replicated his paintings as horrible muddy washes of color that are very hard to look at. There are even differences in early editions; my first edition, first printing of Emerald City is a lovely book, but it’s falling to bits, and missing some of its plates. I have a much more stable copy from the 1920s, but by then, they had stopped using the metallic green ink – they simply leave it out, resulting in big white empty spaces. Sometimes it works out all right, and sometimes it ruins the pictures.

The very use of that ink is just an indicator that they were making this as special a book as possible. They saw it as the end of an era, the last in a super-popular series, and I think they envisioned young Oz fans rereading and looking back over it for their Oz “hit” for years to come. It’s not something you can exhaust in one or two readings, and that’s deliberate.

I think particularly with the early Oz books, they’re trying really hard to make each one an event. It’s like the childhood version of this year’s car: ooh, here are the features for this year’s book! This one’s got bright shiny green ink! And it’s got 16 plates instead of 12! And it’s got little chapter headings! That kind of thing. They give up on it really soon, though – perhaps because of rising costs and shortages in the years leading up to World War I. Before long, the books will have a standard presentation.

Targeting the Audience

There’s one other thing that I keep wondering about with these pictures. What age of child are these really addressed to? They are so visual that there is a kind of picture book aspect to them . . . . 

I have no idea anymore! I’ve been wondering the same thing, because logically I would think to myself, the age range should be reflected in Dorothy, right?

Yep, that’s reasonable, especially as she’s the only actual child-figure in this book.

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John R. Neill (1910)

That makes sense. At the same time, though, ten years have passed since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Ozma of Oz was 1907. . . can we assume that Dorothy was, perhaps, 8 years old at that time? If Dorothy is 8 years old in 1907, and there’s been one book a year since then, are she and the audience both maybe . . . 11 now? Is that even possible? Sorry, of course it’s possible. I just have such a hard time discerning who it’s intended for. I really don’t feel like it’s very, very small children, the way the first book might have been. Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely! In part, the question came to me because it feels like there’s a bit of a mismatch in this one between the level of complexity of the plot (which is nil) and the level of detail (how richly he describes the places and houses and events). So little happens in this book, really, that it feels most suitable as a bedtime story for that very young child – but then, there’s also the wordplay, the complexity, which really suggests something different. I found myself asking, who is this for, really?

Do you know whom I think it’s for? At this point, it’s mostly for L. Frank Baum. What I mean by that is: he knows if it has the word Oz in it, it’s going to sell, so he’s just going to do whatever he wants. I’ve already sort of told you I didn’t like this book much when I was a kid. The truth of it is, I thought of this book as the last in a trilogy of Really Boring Books. They’re Baum’s big three travelogues where very little happens. Now, as an adult, I think it’s the best constructed of these three books, because it doesn’t just STOP midway through . . .

Ha!

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John R. Neill (1910)

Baum seems to be telling fairly basic stories with a lot of padding, sometimes investing more of his skill in the padding than in the “plotline,” which suggests to me that he kind of woke up in the morning, and went, “Welp, I’ve got to write an Oz book this year, what should I put in it?” He just sat down and wrote whatever he wanted, and he was frankly a bit bored. So much so, in fact, that I’m fairly convinced the only reason he came up with an invasion of Oz – bear in mind, the first truly evil plan in these books since the Wicked Witch of the West – was specifically so he could block Oz off from the outside world at the very end. He could use it as an excuse to say, “Oh, we must put ourselves in an invisible bubble and separate ourselves forevermore from the great outside world…buh-bye! Buy my other books.”

Yes! I totally agree. I’m surprised, in fact, that the chapter with the Rigmarole people doesn’t go on pages longer, because it seems to me it’s purely an excuse to put a lot of words on the page without having anything actually happen at all. He even chooses to give us a weird cutaway: a zebra trotting up out of nowhere and having an argument with a crab about the outside world. It’s so peculiar that it feels it must be a heavily coded bit of satire, but I think it’s just stream of consciousness: looming deadlines and suppression of his internal censor. It feels like he just wrote it, huffed out the candle and went to bed, dusting his hands . . . .

 “Six pages down! Two hundred and forty-seven to go!”

Exactly. There are moments here that feel to me completely transparent about how little he cares about what he produces, so long as he produces it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t produce great stuff sometimes, but he also doesn’t mind if he doesn’t . . . and neither do Reilly & Britton.

No, it’s pretty obvious they have L. Frank Baum the Celebrity writing a book for them every year with the word “Oz” in the title, and they don’t really care what’s inside the covers. He doesn’t care either! It’s too bad, because there’s some stuff in this book that’s really good. It’s just all in the first half, before he loses the will to live.

Meanwhile, the Legion of Doom . . . .

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John R. Neill (1910)

The initial sequence with the Nome King is such an interesting way to start the book. Baum’s never started an Oz book before without the focus firmly on a child character (usually Dorothy). For the first time, it’s set up as if you should already be aware of this world and all of its people – you know, it’s like the latest episode of your favorite TV show. In a fantastically grim teaser, the Nome King sends multiple generals off to the meat slicer and vows his revenge on the Oz people. Cue the title sequence!

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Skottie Young (2013)

It’s one of Baum’s motifs, isn’t it? “They’re expecting a meat slicer joke, so I suppose I’d better shove one in somewhere. Maybe I’ll suggest the characters get eaten in the last half. I hate having to put these bits in, but the kids go crazy for threats of cannibalism . . . .”

Well . . . yes, it’s cuddly old Uncle Frank, so there’s always going to be gags about eating people. Aunt Em will, of course, think it very unfortunate Billina isn’t offering up her young to be eaten. My favorite is the bit in Bunbury where Toto eats some of the citizens; not only is Dorothy indignant that the other buns dare to be offended, but Billina defends Toto’s actions by saying they dared him to do it. Dorothy and her pets are like the worst kind of guests who show up, eat all your food, and then blame you for not having any more. “You only gave us a wheelbarrow and a piano to eat. What do you want? You want us to be neighborly, too?”

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Skottie Young (2013)

Aside from the humorous references to killing and eating people that we’ve come to expect from L. Frank Baum, however, I also thought there were parts of it that do show how far he’s come. There’s a really scary bit when General Guph meets the Phanfasms.

I love that bit. Really to my taste.

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John R. Neill (1910)

That’s a great bit, right? There are all these eyes watching Guph that he can’t see but he can feel, and even when he gets brought into the hut, it’s obviously not really a hut – yet that’s all he can make out with his poor fragile Nome senses. I love Neill’s response to the description of Guph having the sensation of being watched by a thousand eyes: he draws the First and Foremost of the Phanfasms holding Guph by the neck and surrounded by about a hundred literal eyes.

I must admit, I did have to look at that picture twice to work out what was going on . . . .

It’s that, or the First and Foremost really likes bubbles.

I like all of those scary people that Guph meets. They’re all really vividly imagined, really inventive, particularly the Whimsies, with their giant papier mache heads and tinted wool for hair. The Growleywogs, who are motivated by a sort of resentment not because they are innately horrible, but that they are –

They’re different. They’re different, and it makes them nasty. It’s one of the rare times Baum says, “To be different from your fellow creatures is always a misfortune.”

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Skottie Young (2013)

Yes! It’s like an internal conflict, for the first time, between Baum’s idealism and his cynicism. Being different is a difficult life.

I made a note while reading that just says, “Meanwhile, the war. . .” I like how we keep cutting away from docile events to show the Nome King building his tunnel or entertaining his allies. It’s like a cartoon, with all the supervillains sitting around together, going, “Well, do we attack the good people NOW?” “Yes, we attack the good people at dawn!” “AT DAWN!” “AT DAAAAAAWN!”

It’s a bit He-Man, isn’t it? It’s also a little bit like someone chopped Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz and The Road to Oz up and weaved them together. It’s as if Baum went, “Okay, okay. So not completely ‘terrifying,’ then, but also not completely ‘nothing happens.’”

You’re right – this one is all very scary music, with interjections of sudden bits of fluffy childhood security. Dun-dun-dun-dun PAPER DOLLS! Dun-dun-dun-dun BUNNIES! Dun-dun-dun-dun…

Back and forth, back and forth. Every single Oz book we’ve read so far has been really different in tone from all of the others. There’s not two where you can go, “These are completely alike.”

The Old Folks at Home

A large portion of this novel is given over to the ending of things. Baum is lining everything up in a row so he can leave it there, and there’s one particularly odd way in which he makes that happen. What did you think about Ozma bringing Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to Oz to live?

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Skottie Young (2013)

I really, really enjoyed it. It’s always been one of my favorite things about this book – I suppose because it breaks the rules of all children’s books. I don’t think this happens in any other children’s novel, and really, you’re not supposed to even want this, because escapism is supposed to be temporary and good for you, but you’re supposed to grow out of it – it’s not supposed to be the long-term solution. I think there’s a variety of reasons why Baum does it here. Partly it’s another indictment of our heartless modern world. Partly it’s just for the comedy of having them there.

There’s comedy for sure. When they meet the Lion, he’s in on the joke, going out of his way not to embarrass Aunt Em.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Oh, I missed that detail! I just read it as the confrontation of two absurdities – two people who should really never have met, and the Lion saying, I was so frightened I was a step away from ripping you to bits. It’s funny because Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are so much more earthly than she is. Your reading is a lot lighter than mine, though. I saw it as Baum’s realist streak showing again: that’s how cowardice and fear sometimes manifests, as random acts of violence . . . . 

Your reading is valid, and it’s exactly how I read it when I was a child. This time around, though,  I noticed we actually get a description: “‘The human eye is a fearful weapon,’ remarked the Lion, scratching his nose softly with his paw to hide a smile.” He’s humoring the daft old lady. It’s rather sly, understated humor on Baum’s part.

Oh, I missed that bit! Maybe it’s because of Neill’s illustration, which I’d never seen before. In my head, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry look like the actors Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin. from the MGM film. Here, though, they’re wearing these ridiculous Ozian garments, and they look kind of like they’re from the 18th century. . . .

I think their transition to life in Oz is rather sweet. It contributes to the “sunset glow” that makes everything feel like it’s coming to an end: Ozma’s going to find something for them to do, Aunt Em’s going to be the official darner of stockings, and Billina’s going to have a few thousand more children, and that’s how we’re going to leave them. By the way, I don’t know how they’ve kept the land of Oz from being overrun by chickens at this point – sort of like the cane toad infestation that took over Australia. These are the chickens that took over Oz – though as the book points out later, that may not be such a bad thing, insofar as it prevents invasion by Nome. As for Ozma…

Absolutely, Your Worship!

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20th Century Fox (1977)

Finally, we have a book where Ozma does things. I started this book just before Christmas, and I was right in the early section where Ozma is being very, very princessy and regal right as the news came out about Carrie Fisher’s death. With all the photos online and footage from Star Wars on news programs, it was really hard not to see Princess Leia in my mind’s eye as I was reading about Ozma. That really showed up an inconsistency for me between how I remember the books and how the books actually are, because I remember Ozma as a real Leia-type: this princess who is bright and spunky and a real go-getter. There are some hints of that in Emerald City, actually. Yet this is also the book where Ozma decides she’d rather just sit back and be invaded.

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John R. Neill (1910)

Again, I think that relates to what we’ve talked about before, briefly, about how Baum’s idealism relates to his pragmatism. As much as the sense of an epic invasion is really not given its due gravitas, there is a tragic theme to this novel: Oz is (by this point) the perfect place, an utopian, socialist state of emancipated women, and therefore, quite naturally, the object of attack. Whether it’s for material gain or to enslave its citizens, or purely out of resentment of its moral purity and happiness, any force that could have designs on an utopian state like Oz is presented as capable of destroying it. Oz can only survive by withdrawing. Baum’s utopian idealism has this one completely tragic condition: it just couldn’t exist against the cynicism and moral bankruptcy of the modern world.

Right.

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John R. Neill (1910)

In the scene with Ozma refusing to fight, we see him portraying what he sincerely considers a high ideal of pacifism, but as something ultimately romantic and impossible, perhaps even dangerous and naive. It’s part of the romantic tone to the last chapters of the book. In anticipation of the invasion at daybreak, we get this Garden of Gethsemane moment where four odd men, who have been made by the Ozian people and can’t technically die, gather together and lament for the passing of Oz. They actually weep in Neill’s illustration, which is just extraordinary, really. It goes beyond symbolism; it’s a weird collision of cultural mores of the time and the fact that Baum and Neill had more or less a free hand in whatever they did with this book, really, and weren’t even censoring themselves in what they presented. It’s kind of hard to judge it by any normal aesthetic measure, because it’s not even a political statement; it’s just a moment of two men having a kind of romanticist flamboyant episode, really. Almost hysterical, in a funny sort of way. Does that make sense? 

Yes, it does. I think L. Frank Baum was a complex beast and had a lot of facets. I’m a little worried what happens when we get beyond Baum, in fact, because I don’t think anybody treated his world with the same sincerity – well, Jack Snow, maybe. In the closing chapters of this book, though, I thought Baum was really talking about his view of death. Too much?

Go on.

Well, I found myself wondering if Baum’s romantic nature and his more pragmatic side ever had a little fight about the concept of death. It’s a strangely romanticized pragmatism right there at the end, isn’t it? Here we are, at this one brief shining moment, and soon, it will be gone . . . but there’s nothing we can do, so we might as well get up in the morning and face it full-on. It’s a very mixed message. I agree with you, there’s symbolism in those four characters standing around and talking and basically waiting to die – waiting to be invaded. They’re just going to watch the very spot where it will happen, until it bursts open and everything goes to hell! I mean, it’s lunatic.

Yeah, they’re resigned to their fate.

It’s a very optimistic resignation, though! Yes, well, it has been really nice, let’s have one more nice meal together, and get a nice sleep, and get up early in the morning so we can die.

I think it comes down to the fact that the Land of Oz is utopian – and we could get into all the intricacies of “okay, it’s a socialist utopia, but Ozma has so many servants she has nothing for Aunt Em to do, so…” – but Baum does present this as a perfect place, where you live forever so long as you’re good . . . .

Unless you die of the pip!

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John R. Neill

Oh, Baum allows himself to break with continuity for a death gag, obviously – I think he always will – but he presents that utopian situation as boring, frankly. He’s doing it on purpose, too – over the last few books, he’s slowly made Oz so perfect he can’t tell any more stories about it. What would happen if he did? People would wake up, have a nice day, go to bed, wake up, drive out of town, see some people made out of jigsaw puzzles, come back and go to bed again. If the Ozian people showed any violence here, or any capacity to destroy another person, that would mar their perfection, to the extent that he would have to write another book! They have to be perfect so that story is done. Baum ends by reassuring us that everyone in Oz has achieved that moral perfection, so we can let them be.

I get that: in not lowering themselves to violence, these characters remain perfect, so when the enemy is defeated, they’re more perfect still, and we leave them in a sort of idyllic existence. What’s particularly interesting to me is that there’s another figure yet who is more perfect than they are – and that’s Glinda.

Mama’s Gonna Help Build the Wall

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John R. Neill (1914)

Glinda shows up at the end to be everybody’s mom, and I just find that so fascinating. Instead of a God, Our Father symbol, Baum has decided on Goddess, Our Mother. It’s really driven home, I should add, by that plate Neill drew of Glinda as a very motherly figure with Dorothy under one arm and Ozma under the other. Glinda shows up to fix everyone’s problems, much as she did in the original book; she has complete intelligence, she has complete control, she can do whatever needs to be done, and because it’s Glinda, it’s going to be perfect and inviolate. It’s really comforting to have this Ultimate Mother figure, especially if you’re a child reading the book, but as an adult, I have to look at it slightly differently. Yet again, we are learning how much you don’t want to piss off Glinda. Actually, you don’t want to make her happy, either: if she decides she likes bunnies, she’s going to make a bunny city!

Whether they want it or not! Glinda is a very powerful individual, and she’s even outside of the situation of Oz being invaded. She knows that it’s going on, she doesn’t want to intervene –

That’s why she feels like God!

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John R. Neill (1910)

– And evidently, she doesn’t feel threatened by it, either. Why would she be? She really is a Mother Goddess. Big “G,” without any reservations. There’s not a minute where she’s implied as mortal in any sense. She’s not even a common-or-garden witch any more. By this book, she’s the only one with the designation of Sorceress, which is interesting in terms of the view of witchcraft that Baum might have had from Maud Gage. There’s something about the Sorceress: she’s mystical, rather than magical.

I’m positive – positive! – that Glinda is based on Baum’s wife Maud. I think she must be – or at least, to split a hair – she is based on the mother of his children.

Yeah, I can see what you’re saying.

Glinda is not a character we ever fully grasp, I think. She’s always a little bit untouchable. There might be one or two books where she becomes a little bit more human, but not by much. And that’s been an interesting thing for me to realize as we read these: just how powerful she really is. In the first book, she’s just a Good Witch; then she becomes a Sorceress and we never really look back. By this book, she can practically change physics, so . . . it’s quite astonishing.

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Skottie Young (2013)

She has everything written in her magic book, too, which is interesting. In effect, it’s quite like Ozma’s Magic Picture, but a book is so much more powerful a symbol than a picture – in terms of scholarship and religion and even this physical thing we’re discussing now, storytelling and authorship and Baum. You could say that Glinda is basically carrying out the role of the author at the end of the book, but she’s also like us, turning the pages, reading their adventures.  There’s something potently meta-textual about Glinda and her book.

Yes. As much as the Magic Picture can show you anywhere at any time, the Great Book of Records has everything that ever happens everywhere. Glinda is the keeper of the ultimate knowledge. One of my biggest annoyances with the MGM film is Glinda, because it so undercuts Baum’s concept of the character. She doesn’t really fit for me. She’s just Billie Burke playing a Billie Burke character. Admittedly, though, it does feel like she could have created Bunnybury. “I just love little rabbits! Poof! You have your own city now!”

The End of the Road . . . ?

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John R. Neill (1910)

It wasn’t quite as complex as I was expecting, but I did enjoy reading The Emerald City of Oz. It is teeming with weird ideas, weird inventions, and surprises. It’s a very unusual book, an easy read, and although it could’ve been dull in places, it had just enough momentum – Baum was just enough invested in it – that it held together and was fun.

Absolutely. I enjoyed the beginning very much, I enjoyed the middle quite a bit, and there’s a bit around 2/3s in where it feels like it’s got a bit of a lull, but it picks up again toward the end. I think I enjoyed the whole of it more than I did either Dorothy and the Wizard or Road. I still don’t think it’s one of the best in the series. For whatever reason, I have yet to encounter any of the books we’ve read so far where my childhood impression has been really off the mark. If we stick to the pattern, that means we have some good books coming up!

I’m looking forward to a book where people don’t just drive around for no reason. That’s a real downside, a real flaw to this book, that makes it pointlessly tedious at times.

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John R. Neill (1910)

There’s never going to be a time where Baum completely gives up on giving us a travelogue. For some reason, this is a man who is always destined to write 300 page books that should be 200 pages long. From here on out, though, he at least gives us reasons for this stuff, and I think he learns, eventually, to come up with stronger endings – or if not endings, stronger climaxes, to where you actually feel like you’ve read a book. That’s as opposed to really great beginnings that . . . just end, suddenly.

I do like the conclusion to this book, too, and the way that the invaders are redeemed rather than destroyed. That’s quite a nice ending, even if there’s a moral dubiousness to it about whether it’s better to die or have your entire personality erased.

We could talk for a while about Ozma basically lobotomizing people, but . . . .

I’d rather not dwell on it.

Me neither, at least not this time around. Would you give this book to a child?

Yes – more so than the other two that we’ve just read. I’d really enjoy reading this to a child, because it has some drama, it has some laughs, it has a clever ending…ish, and…yeah. I thought this was one of the best assembled and addressed to a child audience since Ozma of Oz.

I agree with that – it has a nice balance to it. It’s not over, though, Nick!  This can’t be the end. The best is yet to come!

Should Oz have ended right here and now? Tell us in a comment! 

Next Time

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 5THE SEA FAIRIES

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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.

The Road to Oz (1909)

road-1909-coverBy 1909, L. Frank Baum was ready to move on from Oz. He had hinted as much in the author’s note to his last book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and the note that opened his new offering, The Road to Oz, made it explicit: “I have received some very remarkable News from the Land of Oz, which has greatly astonished me . . . but it is a such a long and exciting story that it must be saved for another book – and perhaps that book will be the last story that is ever told about the Land of Oz.” In the meantime, Baum offered up another story that was both lighter and frothier than its predecessor, built almost solely around the journey through fairyland that formed the core of many of his earlier tales. In it, he said, he tried to “respect the wishes” of his young readers and provide them with “some new characters . . . that ought to win [their] love.” It’s hard not to read those as the vague, upbeat sentiments of a man who feels worn down.

Here at BURZEE, though, we are anything but worn down. A year has passed since our very first blog, and we’re really in the groove of it now. After a few slow starts, we’re feeling confident in our format and excited for the books to come. We’d like to thank you for coming along with us! Now, it’s time to celebrate: surprisingly, and by total coincidence, with a book that ends in a party – the blog comes full circle with a visit from the magical and immortal Santa Claus . . .

aI actually came to this book with very minimal expectations, says Nick. My only real memory of this book is a very clear image of being read it by my Mum. Everything about the memory is odd – furniture in the wrong places, and so on – so I wonder if this was around the time my sister was born, when I was five. Oddly enough, I still remember key points, like Button Bright’s facial reconstruction and the fate of the Love Magnet, but I was only vaguely aware, before reading it again, that the novel itself was a little slow. What were your memories and expectations, Sarah?

I don’t have a strong memory of my opinion of this book, Sarah replies, except that I always lumped it in with Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as one of the lesser Baum books. I think that’s just because of its relatively minimal narrative drive.

Let’s start with that, then, because I’d actually call it total lack of narrative drive. I was surprised, in virtually every chapter, by the wealth of things that do not happen and obstacles that fail to arise (or persist). After a book where characters were being chucked down pits or attacked by monsters every few pages, I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s a travelogue, essentially.

road-xmasHonestly, I felt like the first few chapters of the book worked pretty well. I like that Baum has given up on the “extreme weather” device of sending Dorothy to Oz, and instead, there’s the strong visual of her surrounded by endless roads; you can absolutely visualize how the cinematic version of that scene would look. The tone of the first few chapters works well, too. The trouble is that after you meet the last member of Dorothy’s company, there’s almost no danger whatsoever, and Baum starts to repeat himself almost immediately.

Unlike in Wonderful Wizard, there’s nothing personally at stake for the characters –particularly Dorothy, who is so confident about reaching the safety of Ozma so early on and keeps reassuring the other characters. They are so lacking in personal motivation themselves that there really isn’t anything for them to worry about, up to and including unexpectedly having animal heads.

Yes – they get concerned for a moment, and then it’s over. It’s too bad, because in most regards, I think this is actually a fairly strong set of diverse characters. The problem is that everyone happily decides go along with whatever happens, which does not make for an exciting story. Reading the two books right after another, I think I ended up with a hazy idea that if you combined the characters of Road and the incidents of Dorothy and the Wizard, you would end up with one really good movie. That pretty clearly indicates the deficiencies of both books.

The significant improvement on the last book is in the characters, definitely, which brings us back to one of Baum’s great strengths. Even though they have nothing to lose and even less to contribute, all the central characters here are really enjoyable. You want to spend time with them.

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John R. Neill (1909)

Right. There’s no “Zeb”-type here; nobody’s here just for their brute strength. Button-Bright is effectively useless, but he’s a realistic small boy who feels drawn from life, as if he was a child that Baum knew – maybe even once of his own sons. Polychrome doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the plot, but she’s a great character in that she’s so dainty and ephemeral, especially alongside the very grounded personality of Dorothy. It should be noted that Baum obviously liked these characters, too: he featured all of them as protagonists again, more than once!

It’s the combination of their differences that really works. Polychrome is so fluffy and Dorothy so down to earth; Button Bright so innocent and the Shaggy Man so worldly. The fact that there’s no hierarchy between them brings us back to what I think of as a sort of Muppet Show aesthetic: it shouldn’t work to have these characters together, but they form an entertaining gang, for all their extreme contrasts.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I think that’s an interesting point; essentially what Baum says again and again – at least, in his best combinations of characters – is that we’re all weirdos and that’s okay, which is surely a very Muppet Show idea. The scene that demonstrates that best is a great one in Dunkiton where everybody is given what they like best for dinner. The Shaggy Man is a man of the road, and he wants something portable and practical: a ham sandwich and an apple. Polychrome, meanwhile, has three dew drops on a plate. Button Bright, being a child, just wants pie, and Dorothy… I really liked Dorothy’s choice. Any other author would have given Dorothy something delicate and feminine and a little bit proper, like a fruit salad or a dish of ice cream, but Baum has her ask for a steak and some chocolate layer cake! It’s the most red-blooded American meal there could possibly be, and then – ever the good-hearted child – she shares some of the steak with Toto. That little scene alone shows you these characters in counterpoint to each other in a way that makes them feel vivid and alive.

Picking up on your point, there’s actually a scene near the end where they arrive in Oz, something of a repeat of that bit in Dorothy and the Wizard where everybody meets one another and tells their life stories. Here, they tell their life stories again – including Dorothy and the Wizard! – which is sort of funny and endless. Polychrome says (echoing Billina in Ozma of Oz), “You have some queer friends, Dorothy,” and Dorothy says, “The queerness doesn’t matter so long as they are friends.” That could almost be the motto of the entire Oz series.

King of the Road

Of course, not all of Baum’s homilies are so sentimental. Another striking one concerns Tik-Tok: “Perhaps it is better to be a machine that does its duty than a flesh-and-blood person who will not, for a dead truth is better than a live falsehood.” Reading between the lines, I think Baum resented being penned into writing endless sequels, but it’s still a very sincere and even personal novel.

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in the character of the Shaggy Man. In the Winter 1990 issue of The Baum Bugle, there’s a short piece by Hal Lynch calling this “the most dangerous Oz book.” Lynch rails against the idea that Baum starts a novel where Dorothy goes off with a strange man, saying that the most sacred rule of childhood has been violated: don’t go off with strangers. While I certainly take his point, the idea that you wouldn’t trust someone because you don’t know them yet is pretty much against everything Baum says in his books. The way a Baum story works, of course the Shaggy Man is somebody who is trustworthy, of course he turns out not to be a villain.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I wonder if there is any significance to be drawn from the fact that the Shaggy Man repeatedly refers to Dorothy as “my dear,” exactly how Baum refers to his readers. I’m not saying that’s deliberate insertion of Baum into this novel, but I do think there’s a real identification between Baum and the Shaggy Man, particularly in his relationship to trusting children like Dorothy. He’s not just romanticized; I feel that he is a figure of personal significance to Baum.

Sure. I also found myself wondering if there’s a little bit of Baum in the Shaggy Man, just the way that there’s a little bit of Baum in the Wizard: they’re both self-made men (well, to a point), and they’re both tricksters. I wonder if Baum at all styled himself as the Shaggy Man in that in 1909, he had travelled so much over the past few years.

All that said, at this point, Baum also functions as the opposite of the Shaggy Man. He has so many commitments at the time this comes out –  even grandchildren! The Shaggy Man represents a freedom about which a man like Frank Baum can only fantasize.

How do you feel about the Love Magnet? For me, it’s the one really dark thing in this book. I don’t mean scary – because the encounter with the Scoodlers is certainly that – I mean dark. Manipulation isn’t something that Baum tends to ascribe to positive characters. The Wizard was manipulative in his first appearance, and so was the Nome King; here, we have the major adult figure of the book manipulating the affections of child protagonists. That’s a fairly dangerous item.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Actually, I didn’t read any of those sinister overtones this time. In fact, I saw the Love Magnet as a rather melancholy object, perhaps even meant as an indictment of our own world, where someone like the Shaggy Man is going to be intrinsically unloved. Bearing in mind the possibility that Baum saw himself in the figure of the Shaggy Man, I couldn’t help wondering if the love magnet was symbolic of the Oz books themselves (my dears). It’s an object that wins him the love and admiration of many, but it’s artificial and it’s stolen, and to a great extent it’s even tawdry.

We’re returning to that idea of the most dangerous Oz book, I feel. It’s much less concerning to me that Dorothy goes off with a stranger, particularly in the context of 1909, than it is that Dorothy goes away with someone who is manipulating her.

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John R. Neill (1909)

What’s funny is that you can imagine the feedback coming in for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz: “Too much drama! Too scary!” The Love Magnet is a sort of guarantee, from the very first chapter, that our heroes will survive any dangerous situation; everyone will love them instead of trying to destroy them. The more you think of it, though, the more you realize how much Baum plays on this device – this artificial rosy glow. In the cities of Foxville or Dunkiton, people love our characters so much they want to remake them in their own image. It goes so far in the land of the Scoodlers that this symbol of love – this “safety guarantee” on the very narrative of the book – becomes comically inverted to the point of horror.

That’s a particularly funny moment. There might actually be a little bit of warning here, too, which is that you can’t force people to love you. The Scoodlers do say, “We love you!” but it’s “We love you in soup!”  

Behave Yourself!

I found it very enjoyable that, once again, we follow Dorothy on a simple, straightforward journey, just as in the very first Oz book. Dorothy and Toto, in fact. How nice is it to have Toto back? I’ve noticed that Baum anthropomorphizes all of his cats; whether they’re the Lion, the Tiger, or even Eureka, they’re all very human in their personalities. Toto, on the other hand, is a dog. Toto is the most doggish dog there could possibly be, and Baum writes him with the enthusiasm of someone who knows and enjoys dogs. Toto’s entire first scene in this book has the joyful glee of a dog’s irreverent behaviour and the sheer fun of chaos they bring to a situation. I, for one, enjoyed having Toto back with Dorothy as opposed to other, prissier companions.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I almost feel that Toto functions as the id to Dorothy’s ego. She’s the one saying, “We don’t do that, we’re well behaved,” and he just hares off after everything, barks at everyone, and openly shows his affection whenever he wants. In the banquet at the end, the animals dine with the people and Toto is actually in a highchair with a bib. There’s a line about how in Oz, animals are treated just the same as anyone, as long as they behave themselves.

In future books, Ozma will actually give that as her sole edict: the only rule in Oz is to “behave yourself.”

We don’t get that here, but we do learn that nobody dies in Oz except people who do bad things and are put to death. That’s a strong incentive to behave yourself! To me, Baum is working through a process in these early novels of solidifying and stabilizing Oz, getting it to where everything is such a perfect utopia, he couldn’t write another sequel if they beg him. Part of that involves a real moral absolutism, which is casually mentioned and lightly sketched but is, in fact, totally extreme. In the merry old land of Oz, if you don’t “behave,” you are as good as rejecting eternal life in paradise.

Yes – and a paradise without any money, too. Baum is quietly redefining Oz as a socialist utopia, which is interesting because it changes Oz from being somewhere you would like to visit but never live in to somewhere you would never leave.

It’s funny that in the opening book there was a gleeful note in the idea that “Oz has never been civilized,” but since Ozma came in, it’s less anarchic, more civilized and more morally authoritarian than ever before.

We’ve seen a few examples of Ozma’s style of governance by now. I think as a child I found it standard and very natural, but as an adult, I worry a bit more about what having Ozma as my ruler would be like.

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Skottie Young (2013)

It’s interesting to me that it is a socialist utopia in the vein of William Morris’ quietly radical novel News from Nowhere, but it still has an unelected, hereditary monarch. Everyone’s throwing roses at her feet, and she lives in a palace with a window to anywhere in Oz. There’s this weird sense of stasis, too, with these new ideas about (a lack of) death.  Again, we’re getting to a point where Baum can leave things and we’ll all trust that they go on forever: we’re moving towards an eternal summer and an eternal reign of Ozma. As a child that’s reassuring, but for an adult, it’s the opposite.

It makes Ozma’s rule feel like a benevolent dictatorship; it’s hard not to be reminded of Fidel Castro, who died just before we had this conversation. How much do tyrants freeze their countries in time, ultimately to the detriment of their people? What’s troubling for us is that in earlier books we’ve seen Oz as a much more complex place, where citizens are clearly being taken advantage of by governments, where certain members of the population have attempted to revolt. Now we’re being asked to accept that everybody is just fine with Ozma’s complete and unending oversight. Those two scenarios don’t gel very well, in my opinion.

I think it doesn’t help that at this point in the series, Ozma is kind of unknowable. Ever since she changed from a boy into a girl we’ve seen less and less of her. She’s a slightly faceless figure in the text. It’s only really in Neill’s illustrations that she becomes a person with a character.

It’s hard for me to separate, sometimes, because I’ve read the later Oz books and I know Ozma quite well. (In some of those, she becomes far more of a protagonist than we’ve yet seen.) Dorothy, however, already seems to know how great Ozma is: her gushing descriptions clearly make her out to be the new ruler’s biggest fan.

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John R. Neill (1909)

Dorothy’s love for Ozma is also emphasized by the illustrations. There’s a lovely picture of the girls sharing a chaste kiss, and the same image is essentially emblematized on the back cover. It’s almost as if this quasi-romantic love between the earthly farmgirl and her fantastical girlfriend represent the very character of the Oz books, where the down-to-earth meets the far-fetched. Perhaps for Neill that is more romantic, and for Baum it’s more childlike?

I think it’s clear – from, at least, Neill’s illustrations in this book and the previous one – that Ozma and Dorothy have what would have been called, at the turn of the century, a “romantic friendship.” It’s the kind of thing you see exemplified in books such as Anne of Green Gables, where Anne and Diana gush about one another endlessly and, even when they go off to be married, openly devote themselves to one another for the Remainder of Recorded Time. It’s something alien to our more sexually oriented mindset these days. No matter how you look at it, though, I can’t but think that Dorothy is influenced by her obvious love for the Princess Ozma, and as an adult it makes me wonder if she sees Ozma entirely clearly.

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John R. Neill (1909)

You mean that she sees her, perhaps, as a child as opposed to a head of state with all of the other, slightly worrying aspects you’ve described?

Well, I wonder if Dorothy sees Ozma as a much more innocent figure than she really may be. That isn’t helped by the fact that in later books Baum will play with how old Ozma is, and how much magical power she has. I have to question whether Ozma is simply a naïve but benevolent leader or whether she, like the Shaggy Man, is much more manipulative than Dorothy gives her credit. Even something as simple as Ozma having a giant birthday party gets called into question. As adults, we have to wonder if this is a child having the most outrageous birthday party ever or a queen who wants her courtiers to bow and scrape in an outrageous expression of ceremony.

For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow(?)

Potentially, it’s also a demonstration of statesmanship between the new ruler of Oz and, say, the Queen of Merryland or King John Dough. I must say that the cameos at the birthday party were a particular pleasure for me, having read and discussed all these books for the first time with you this year. All the awkwardness and oddness of those books has paid off in the uniquely weird joy of seeing all their protagonists sit down to dinner together at the end.

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Harry McNaught (1951)

Ah, and now you see the endgame to my cunning plan! Even I hadn’t read all of those other books when we started out a year ago, and I was always intrigued with the way Baum included the characters at the end of this book. What I realize now is how obvious his motive was: he was getting children to ask their parents to buy those books for Christmas, probably because they weren’t selling as well!

I’m so naïve that I didn’t spot that until afterward. Of course, it makes perfect sense, along with the “please read my other books, and by the way I’m ending the series next year” message that we get in the preface. What’s beautiful, though, is that I didn’t notice what was going on; these books are precisely the kind of place where you would have Santa Claus turn up at Ozma’s birthday party.

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Skottie Young (2013)

I think, inadvertently, Baum has just made his world much bigger and brighter because he’s linked all these stories together. Oz isn’t just one little place in the middle of nowhere anymore; it’s alongside the borders of all of these other countries. I think that’s enough to send any child’s head spinning with possibility, and it frees Baum up to do more of that in the future – which he will, of course.

Even the Braided Man turns up to say –

“Buy Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, kids!”

“Find out who this completely bizarre character is…”

“… for the three pages in which he appears.” Yep!

All the Colors of the Rainbow

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John R. Neill (1909)

This is a good place to talk about the John R. Neill illustrations. Although he’s depicted the John Dough and the Cherub characters before, he’s never drawn Queen Zixi of Ix – who looks very different from the version in her own book – or the Queen of Merryland or the Candy Man. I think this book is probably the candidate for Neill’s most delicate artwork. It’s very careful, it’s very layered, and it’s almost impossible to see at any detail if you reduce it to a smaller size. It’s very, very beautiful. At the same time, though, I have to be incredibly regretful that this is the one Baum book for which Neill provided no colour plates. Unlike the previous book, I think this one would have really benefited from some watercolors.

When you literally have the Rainbow’s Daughter in a book it would be nice to have her in color.

When she pops up again in a few books’ time she is very colorful indeed. Wouldn’t it be great to see the attack of the Scoodlers in color, too?

…Or Foxville, because they’re such fops and dandies, aren’t they? That would look wonderful.

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Harry McNaught (1951)

 

…Or the sailing of Johnny Dooit’s ship across the Deadly Desert, which seems to have inspired a number of cover artists. Michael Herring, for instance, used it on the cover of the Del Rey paperback.

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Michael Herring (1979)

It’s one of those books that has such incredible imagery – more than earlier Baum stuff, perhaps. Not much happens, but what does happen is unlike anything else. I must say, having looked around online, I wish I had a copy of the Little Golden Book. The artwork there is so charming and full of life, and there’s a great image of the desert ship in there full of pure joie de vivre.

How do you feel about the colored pages? (The earliest editions of The Road to Oz were published with subsequent sections of the book printed on different colored page stock, including tan, lilac, blue, orange, green and brown. All of the Neill illustrations in this blog are sampled from the first edition, first printing of the book.) In my opinion, they’re a neat effect, but I don’t think they do anything particularly useful.

Well, from the outside of the book they look great, but I don’t think they ever make Neill’s art look better than it would on white paper. Sometimes I think it’s the reverse, and the detail is not very clearly differentiated. There are some cases where it’s hard to make out what’s going on – like the image of Santa Claus in the bubble, where it’s hard to tell it’s Santa at all.

Part of that’s not having any color, which is improved, at least somewhat, in the 1939 “junior edition” of The Road to Oz. That reduced-size release “for little hands” colored some of Neill’s illustrations to accompany an abridged version of the story. Even there, though, I think any sort of reproduction of Neill’s pictures makes the quality slightly worse. The illustrations for this book are very delicate because they’re made up of so many fine lines.

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John R. Neill – Selections from the “Junior Edition” (1909, 1939)

The crowd scenes are incredible. Baum basically says, would you please draw a crowd of two hundred people, made up of scarecrows, animals, robots and giant insects, and Neill just delivers.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Throughout our blogs, I’ve been trying to find artists other than Neill to showcase – not because I dislike Neill (far from it), but because I’m aware of how much he owns the identity of so many of these characters from The Marvelous Land of Oz onward. In fact, he basically owns the illustrated Oz of the 20th century: although he died in the 1940s, his designs for the characters lived on through the work of prominent Oz artists Dick Martin (in the ‘60s and ‘70s) and Eric Shanower (in the ‘80s and ‘90s), both of whom intentionally drew in a style inspired by Neill. That means that for almost 100 years, the basic images of all the Oz characters have never really changed.

It’s only with Skottie Young, who did the Marvel Comics adaptations of the first six books, that I think time has finally moved on. I think Young is the significant Oz illustrator for the 2000s to date, and it’s with The Road to Oz, specifically, that I realise how much Young has left Neill behind. There’s no character who is more different and original than Young’s Polychrome. While on the one hand that’s a little bit heartbreaking for me – after all, the Oz in my head is and always will be John R. Neill’s – it’s also tremendously exciting to see Young so deftly demonstrate that there are still new approaches to take with these stories and characters.

An Experiment in Sweetness

I said before that my expectations were low for The Road to Oz because I knew that nothing of any note was going to happen; in fact, even less happens than I was expecting. I still really enjoyed the book, and every time I came back to it, I got something out of it. It’s so interesting to see references to books like Dot and Tot of Merryland, where Baum seemed to be experimenting with style and content, because he’s doing it again. It’s almost as if, like the rest of us, Baum just can’t figure out whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was mostly frightening or mostly reassuring. This time around, the Oz books are suddenly gentle and sweet and funny.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I think I was particularly not looking forward to it. I knew it was not one of my favorite Oz books as a child, and I had also heard other people say they gave up specifically on this book when they tried to read the Oz books in order. I knew, then, that this was not going to be an intrinsically great book, but I will say that I enjoyed reading it – and I think I enjoyed it more than Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, too. It certainly sags in the middle, around the time they get to the Emerald City, but it’s very far from being a bad book. There are simply too many interesting characters and too many clever little moments for me to entirely give up on it.

And would you give this book to a child?

Yes, but for an entirely different reason to last time, which is that I think most children will enjoy these characters and enjoy these jokes. What concerns me is the final half or so of the book is so based in your knowing and wanting to know the existing characters of this series that it might not make a good introduction to the world. (Several notable fans, however – including Eric Shanower – clearly disagree!)

It doesn’t work as an introduction, no, but for my part, I still cherish that childhood memory of being read the book. Of the first five so far, it’s in this one that Baum has hit on the same voice as that of Wonderful Wizard.

I agree with you, Nick – but we can’t get too comfortable. In the next book, everything changes…

Do you love The Road to Oz, or do you long for a more exciting Oz tale? Tell us in a comment! 

Next Time

emerald-blog-1THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ

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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.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908)

dotwiz-1908-coverIt took most of a decade, but by 1908, the Oz books were officially a series, and L. Frank Baum was riding high on success. Ozma of Oz, the first book of his new contract, started the Oz books on a yearly track that would be maintained for the rest of the decade; alongside of those, under various pseudonyms, Baum was engaged in writing animal fairy tales for tiny children, adventurous stories for both older boys and girls, and an Egyptian thriller for adults. He had recently returned from a six-month voyage with his wife, Maud, that encompassed visits to Egypt and a number of European countries, and whether it was as the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz book or the Wizard of Oz stage extravaganza, he was considered a celebrity wherever he went. In 1908, L. Frank Baum truly had it made.

With all Baum had to look forward to that year, it may seem a little surprising that in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he chose to look back, tying up the original, eponymous loose end from his original breakout novel. Perhaps, though, he was already feeling the strain, for as he said in the note to his readers, “It’s no use . . . the children won’t let me stop telling tales of the Land of Oz. I know lots of other stories, and I hope to tell them, some time or another…”

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I’m ashamed to say I didn’t read this book in the fancy Books of Wonder edition you sent me, Sarah, says Nick. I have so much nostalgia attached to my original Del Rey edition. It actually has a little “This book belongs to…’ where I have written somewhat clumsily, “Nicholas Campbell, the biggest Oz maniac in Britain.” I vividly remember the shock and delight at discovering this book in the UK, presented so authoritatively with that bizarre cover. Do you remember reading Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a child?

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Michael Herring (1979)

I do, Sarah replies. A friend of my mother’s – a librarian – gave me a whole bundle of the Del Rey editions when I was quite small. She gave them to me at a pizza restaurant, I remember, one at a time. Whenever I left the table, I’d come back and there would be another book. It quickly became a game; I couldn’t refill my drink fast enough! And I remember specifically the very last one was Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. It certainly sticks in my mind, and I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old.

That’s really lovely. It’s like you shared my experience of discovery and surprise, even though she was arranging that for you.

It was very exciting and very silly.

Like this novel, perhaps? 

A Little Bit of History Repeating

img_8496For years, Sarah, I’ve been calling this one of my favorite Oz books. Compared to Ozma of Oz, there’s just so much stuff that happens. The Mangaboos, the Gargoyles, the Dragonettes, the Invisible Bears – there’s a chapter called “They Fight the Invisible Bears.” How can you not love that? Given that we were talking last time about Return to Oz being more frightening than Baum, did this book scare you as a child?

No.

Oh.

img_20161120_093755I’m afraid, Nick, I found this an absolutely boring bloody book as a child – but I can tell you why. As a child, my entire motivating interest in Oz was the amount of magical creatures involved, so a book primarily populated by “real-life” figures – ordinary American people and their animals – was automatically going to be less interesting.

I think I was also just a bit disinterested in the lack of a story. Things happen in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and there’s certainly a drive to escape things, but there’s not even the light semblance of a plot such as that you find in Marvelous Land, for instance.

I do know where you’re coming from, but at the same time, the book feels like it has a lot more atmosphere than its predecessors. It’s more inventive and there’s a lot more jeopardy. Compared to Ozma of Oz, there is also a much more natural narrative flow. It feels to me as if Baum was really coming into his own as a writer in terms of style.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Yes, I think I will agree with you on that. I noticed several times that this felt to me like the work of a more mature writer than any of the previous Oz books; Baum became more evocative in his descriptions, more able to engage the reader emotionally instead of presenting scenes as illustrative tableaus. There was less of a remove for me as the reader than in previous Oz books.

For the most part, there’s not even a suggestion that this novel could have become a theatre piece down the line, unlike the earlier books. It felt like a real engagement in writing a book where the most impossible things can happen, and the most impossible people, too.

Yes. As much as I like the previous books a lot, this one seemed the most like someone was trying to write a genuine novel since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Actually, I get the sense that he might have gone back and reread Wonderful Wizard following his readers’ requests for returning characters. There are countries made of glass and wood, just as the original has one of china, and the very last lines of the book are almost a re-enactment of Dorothy’s return to Kansas. It’s as if he hadn’t previously acknowledged the special pleasures of the book, distracted all that time by theatre.

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Dick Martin (1961)

If I were being cynical I would say that he’s trying to replicate certain dramatic incidents from Wonderful Wizard, at least. The sequence with the Gargoyles reminded me very strongly of the siege by the various creatures of the Wicked Witch of the West, especially the way the Wizard fends them off with the gas fire. When they finally do attack and fight our heroes, it made me think of the attack by the Winged Monkeys.

And Jim’s escape with the wings…

…That’s very much the Gump, yes. Again, were I more cynical about it, I might call Baum unoriginal here. However, by now, I also think he knows what works. It’s a little bit unfair to get too critical of him for it, because this book is eight years after Wonderful Wizard and theoretically, he’s writing to an entirely new child audience. A child who was four years old in 1900, and read Wizard by his or her parents, is now twelve years old and potentially reading Dorothy and the Wizard to a baby brother or sister.

Are Friends Delicious?

There are definite questions about how appropriate this book is for young readers. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s a rather disturbing read?

Oh, it is indeed. There’s an article by Marilynn Olson called “Roots of Oz” (which you can find in L. Frank Baum’s World of Oz: A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Suzanne Rahn), which is chiefly focused on Baum’s use of vegetable people like the Mangaboos. Right at the outset, Olson quotes Baum’s oldest son, who called Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz “the harshest, the sombrest, the furthest removed from Baum’s kindly philosophy of all the Oz books.” I found that quite striking. It’s a very violent, grim book, and I think, as a child, I always picked up on the general darkness of it. I remembered a lot of it taking place underground, in the dark, and I certainly always remembered the Mangaboo sorcerer being sliced in half, perhaps because there’s a very memorable color plate of that event.

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John R. Neill (1908)

I have a vague memory of thinking “Is this really happening?” and turning the page and seeing the illustration confirm it, in no uncertain terms. It’s certainly more violent than anything that’s happened since the very first book.

The darkness I did not remember is that which comes out in character interactions. There is conversation after conversation where characters discuss eating or killing each other. In particular, there’s a long strand about Eureka’s interest in eating the nine tiny piglets that goes well beyond the previous book’s joke of the Hungry Tiger, to the point where it forms the final act of the novel.

As if that’s not enough, the Hungry Tiger himself is back to have a completely passive-aggressive conversation with Jim the Cab Horse.  The Tiger’s conscience “would never permit” him to eat Jim; Jim’s conscience, on the other hand, apparently keeps him from kicking in the Tiger’s skull. “Some day I will let you try to crush in my skull,” says the Tiger, “and afterward you will know more about tigers than you do now.” It’s all very threatening – and a bit unsettling, too.

There’s a surprising amount of violence and threat of death, even for Baum. There are eleven uses of the word “death”; seven of “murder”; nine of “destroy”; and there’s a constant discussion of “Are we going die now?” Does it suggest some fixation on the part of Baum, or was death just so ubiquitous at this point? Because not all of this is serious conversation…

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John R. Neill (1908)

Particularly in the later part of the book, the discussions of death seem to veer uncomfortably from serious discussion to jokes and back again. Even when they’re discussing putting Eureka on trial, the Scarecrow keeps coming in with little pithy comments, as if to break it up with cues for audience laughter. That’s the one bit of the book that felt theatrical to me, in fact.

Well, perhaps that comes from the 1902 stageplay, somewhat. Isn’t Dorothy threatened with execution there?

In the final act, all of the heroic characters are going to be executed: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman.

Equally, though, in the actual book of Wonderful Wizard, Dorothy is ordered to “destroy” the Wicked Witch; she quite blithely accepts that instruction and carries it out.

Well, there’s always a very matter-of-fact attitude toward destruction in Baum’s work. For instance, he completely glosses over the moment where the Wizard creates a ring of fire and manages to destroy most of the Mangaboos.

I think that’s connected to a strange question mark over the nature of life itself, which Vivian Wagner discusses in a great article called “Unsettling Oz: Technological Anxieties in the Novels of L. Frank Baum” in the journal The Lion and the Unicorn. There are questions raised constantly about the nature of life. Here the Mangaboos are very dignified and we are just “meat people,” and the question is whether that removes some of the sanctity and identity of human life.

Tik-Tok, who is manifestly not alive, is another example of Baum’s continuous interest in the boundaries of life. Where this book seems to be different – and it reminds me more of John Dough and the Cherub than other Oz books – is the constant conversation, not so much about death, but of one character willingly destroying another. That, I think, is what makes it so grim.

Yes, I also read an article by Tison Pugh (“Food, Interspecies Cannbalism and the Limits of Utopia in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Books,” also in The Lion and the Unicorn) about the fear of civilized people eating one another. Baum raises the question of whether a talking, sentient animal could – or should – lose their animal nature and appetite by living among in a civilised manner among other people. The Hungry Tiger is the most optimistic version of that, but one of the arguments against Eureka’s execution in the concluding trial is that, well, she’s a cat, and it’s in her nature to eat small animals.

If I didn’t know anything about Baum, I would think he was trying to say something about vegetarianism. Really, though, I think he’s pointing out the absurdity of the logic we take for granted. In much the way he often does with authority and intellectual figures, he’s mocking the justifications we come up with for mere acts of survival. Mind you, I don’t know why it’s specifically coming up here, at this time, in this book; I might have expected it a little bit more one published ten years later, during or after World War I.

Ozma’s Divine Authority

Your point about Baum and the inherent absurdity of human logic seems one of many aspects that recalled Lewis Carroll’s Alice books to me: Dorothy having a kitten, falling through the earth, the trial. I can’t think of any other reason for things to turn so suddenly into CSI: Oz at the end.

Olson makes an interesting suggestion that the bulk of Dorothy and the Wizard is about human despair, with our heroes coming up against all sorts of roadblocks, obstacles, and ultimately, things they can’t get past. From that perspective, Ozma’s magic teleportation is seen as religious salvation as opposed to s simple plot device. Olson herself admits that’s a little bit of a leap – and I agree – but it is, at least, interesting to consider.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Yes, especially because so much of the novel is escapist. It’s about an inventor – a showman – continuously finding a way out of danger, admittedly sometimes by shooting at people or setting them on fire. In the final part of the novel, they almost reach the surface, but he can’t get them through it.

Right. Is the get-out Baum offers symbolic of salvation by God? Then, the Wizard becomes accepted in Oz but remains essentially powerless to stop the trial of Eureka. Does that represent the judgement of God? That’s a heady concept, and I’m not sure we can take it too far, but the trial of Eureka is so unusual and such a strange way to conclude the novel. It feels like our heroes are being punished in a way they simply usually aren’t in a Baum book. I don’t know what Baum was trying to do there, but it’s hard not to think he was trying to do…well,  something.

I missed the idea of a parable altogether; I would have said it goes back to Baum’s take-down of legal process by Carrollian means, as when the Woggle-Bug keeps talking about the image in his mind’s eye – piglet, no piglet, you must have eaten it – and the Scarecrow says, “I suppose, if the cat had been gone, instead of the piglet, your mind’s eye would see the piglet eating the cat…”

Let me offer you this. If Ozma represents a divine authority, is it possible that Eureka’s actions – first, accepting her own trial and then, refusing to be saved by the Wizard – are an implied criticism of the idea of divine authority? We know Baum was not Christian; he was a theosophist, which has aspects of Christianity in it but also (in a mass simplification) believes in reincarnation as opposed to a Heaven and Hell-type scenario. Could that be, through Eureka, his “showing up” of the ludicrousness of accepted religious systems?

The very idea of an ultimate judgement seems constantly critiqued in Baum – whether about Chick the Cherub as boy or girl, whether the Scarecrow is alive or not, Baum seems to be about ambiguities and borderlines. I wouldn’t necessarily have put that in a religious schematic, but if you see Baum as a man whose work is not underpinned by a sense of religious moral authority, you can see that manifesting here.

I think he’s criticizing something, for sure, but you’re oversimplifying. It’s not that Baum’s religious belief was free of the absolutes of morality. However, he is certainly interested in playing with ideas of moral relativism. The very fact that the Wizard is originally presented as a deceiver, a con man, and a pathetic figure without being linked to explicit evil is proof to me that Baum thought a little bit outside of the rigid box.

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Skottie Young (2012)

It’s interesting that of all the people his readers were asking to have back, he picks a character who is, if not overtly criticized in Wonderful Wizard, certainly morally questionable to a degree – and outright villainous in flashback in Marvelous Land. Here, it’s not that he’s wholly redeemed, it’s just that the aspects of him that were dodgy in the past are now useful in a tight spot.

Definitely. The Wizard has moved from being a pathetic loser to being a trickster character – and a heroic trickster character at that. There’s never any question that he might “pull a Dr. Smith” from Lost In Space and save his own skin at the expense of everybody else. When he returns to Oz he is openly hailed as a hero, which is, of course, consistent with how the Ozites felt about him in the first book. But he’s also greeted and welcomed by Ozma, who (you would think) wouldn’t be very happy to see him. Over the next few novels, Baum is going to subtly reshape the Wizard. Most obviously, he’s going to de-age him somewhat. His stated age here isn’t really reflected in Neill’s illustrations, but I think later books rework him to fit those illustrations better.

How to Appal an Author

I do want to talk a bit about Neill because his style seems to change quite drastically between Ozma of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard, and it’s only been a year. I’d say personally, I didn’t like these illustrations as much as his previous ones. The color in the plates seems quite washed out and muddy, and all the characters except for Dorothy and Zeb look semi-grotesque. Although actually, that does suit this novel…

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John R. Neill (1908)

Neill is coming into his own in this book. That’s intended as an objective statement: I’m not trying to say that he’s becoming better or worse, just that he’s coming into his own style. I think in his first three books for Baum (remember John Dough?), he’s trying intentionally to imitate Denslow’s very flat, poster-like, graphic illustrations, and with each successive novel, he’s done it a little less. I feel like his own character is coming out more in Ozma of Oz, and now…here we are.

I really like the book’s last image of Ozma on a divan, looking forlornly out of the window. That seems to me a really interesting adjunct to the text, with the implication that Ozma is waiting for them to come back – she misses Dorothy. She does say it in the text, but without much feeling, whereas this is truly Romantic.

At his best, Neill romanticizes things in a way that Baum does not, and sometimes that’s very beautiful even though it doesn’t necessarily match the text. There’s a brilliant plate showing the fight with the Gargoyles, for instance. Neill’s fight with the Gargoyles is about a million times more dramatic than Baum’s; you actually see the Wizard being throttled.

It’s also quite modulated for a child reader, I think. Neill takes a scary scene and brings the Wizard right into the foreground, fending off the villains. Dorothy and Zeb are being attacked as well, but you really have to peer closely to see them. One Gargoyle is running away with Dorothy’s parasol, which is quite cute…

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John R. Neill (1908)

In this book, Neill has gone full-on Art Nouveau, and I think that was the style in which he was most comfortable. His comic page and advertising work is very much of this same style. There are lots of little lines, lots of natural shapes, lots of curves; it’s all considerably less stark than in his first books for Baum. I think it is absolutely beautiful line work if you can see it at its correct size.

I also love the color plates, but I see what you mean about them being muted. It is one of the only two Oz books where Neill painted watercolors, and therefore, it’s one of only two Oz books where Neill colored the plates himself. I can absolutely see why L. Frank Baum was appalled because it’s clear that Neill just read the book and did what he wanted.

Baum was appalled…?

I think early on he was appalled, yes – he didn’t think of Neill’s work as being humorous enough, which is fair. As a reader, I almost think “my” Oz is more Neill’s than it is Baum’s, because I read these books with these illustrations as a child and my brain sort of papered over all the inconsistencies. I love them wholeheartedly, and it takes me some effort to really dislike them at any level.

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John R. Neill (1908)

It’s true that only a couple of images are truly comic – I like Dorothy being stealthy, almost exactly like a Scooby-Doo character – but I don’t think Baum’s books were as funny as he thought they were.

When he said “humor,” I don’t think he necessarily meant “funny”; he meant that he wanted the art to be more absurd, whereas Neill’s art is filled with beauty and romance. Every time I see Neill’s work from these next few books – not just Dorothy and the Wizard, but The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz – I’m immediately reminded of Alphonse Mucha, whose posters were so prototypically Art Nouveau. Baum surely knew Mucha’s work, too – and probably wouldn’t have thought him appropriate to illustrate Oz, either!

The Stories We Tell

 

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Skottie Young (2012)

Some of my very favorite parts of this book are the little absurd images and moments that don’t last very long. The conversation with the Dragonettes is funny and dark and totally unnecessary in every way, but perhaps it’s the unnecessary aspects that stand out the most strongly. Another instance of that is Dorothy’s strange little interaction with the Gump, which reminds me of a fairy tale called The Goose Girl, where the heroine talks with a horse’s head nailed on a wall –

Yes, but it’s like The Muppets Meet the Goose Girl.

Yeah, exactly! I think this is the last time we see the Gump, or if not, very close. I can’t help but wish Baum had just included a little scene with him in every book.

“I’m still here! Hello!”

Right. There’s also an interesting moment that caught my attention where Dorothy talks about when Ozma “was a boy,” and Zeb says, “Was Ozma once a boy?” Dorothy’s reply is incredibly matter-of-fact, ending in “but she’s a girl now, and the sweetest, loveliest girl in all the world.” Zeb doesn’t comment on it any further, not even to say that it’s strange or that he finds it confusing. He just accepts it as given and moves on, and that feels like the single most progressive thing I’ve ever read in an Oz book.

There are pages and pages of people explaining their backstories to one another, and I think there’s something about the volume of that, and the rapidity of going through it, the funnier it becomes. “Hey, do you remember when you asked me to go and kill a wicked witch, and I did, but accidentally, and then you turned out to be a fraud…” It’s sort of lifelike, in a way, as when you meet someone ten years ago and say, “Oh, you know, I was in love with you, and you didn’t know or care, and then somebody died…”

 

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Skottie Young (2012)

Yeah, there’s a sequence where Dorothy and the Wizard go through their entire history like that, and at the end, you think they’re going to high-five one another or something, like fast-talking teenagers in a modern TV show. It does become increasingly absurd and, thus, increasingly realistic in that you often can’t reduce the relationship of one person to another in one concise sentence; it’s weird and convoluted and doesn’t always make sense. The interesting thing here is that Baum completely ignores the opportunity for Ozma to display benevolent compassion and forgiveness toward the Wizard. Instead, Baum just rewrites history again. Things no longer happen the way they did in Marvelous Land, where the Wizard was shown to have kidnapped Ozma and left her with Mombi. We’re denied the chance to see Ozma come to terms with someone who usurped her throne and radically altered her childhood.

 

Instead, we suddenly get this whole new history for the Land of Oz with witches at war and the Wizard in the middle. That actually sounds like quite an exciting novel; it’s a shame he didn’t go back and write the prequel himself.

Oh, that’s okay; seventy-two billion film and TV projects are vying to do it for him. Oz the Great and Powerful, for instance, takes some definite cues from this book (including the use of the Wizard’s full name). 

In this novel, it does feel like Baum’s trying to, in a surprisingly clumsy way, put together a structure for the county and its history – to stabilize it and make it a safe place. My memory is that in a lot of the coming books, Oz becomes “some place like home,” where Ozma’s realm is sanctified and solid, and this whole sequence seems to be shoring up that space.

Two Horses Enter, One Horse Leaves

I think it’s at least fair to point out that one thing we see as adults and missed as children is what a bizarre, inconsistent, naïve, and rather autocratic ruler Ozma is. She was extremely naïve in dealing diplomatically with the Nome King in the previous novel. Here, she inflicts justice in a way that simply doesn’t make sense – and she will do that again, in a later book, too.

She’s not very interesting here, either. She’s not funny or clever or adventurous. She doesn’t seem to do very much except to ask, in a lordly way, for a maid to bring her her piglet.

She also oversees a gladiatorial contest for her own amusement – not to mention a horse race.

One of the problems with the race – and the whole novel – is that Jim the horse is so very unpleasant throughout that chapter and the ones before and after. Much as I do enjoy this novel up until, perhaps, the last quarter, I don’t think Baum’s characters here are charming or likeable, whereas that was the real strong point of the previous three books.

I agree with that, and as we’ve said, some of his characters have even been made vaguely threatening. The Sawhorse is somewhat sanctimonious, the Woggle-Bug is even more pompous than ever before, and the Lion and the Hungry Tiger feel peculiarly like Ozma’s enforcers.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Zeb and Jim don’t enjoy being in Oz from the minute they get there, and it’s understandable. Oz feels genuinely alien. It doesn’t have any horses, cats or chickens – it’s like a completely other world.

Can we talk about that for a minute? How is it that there are sawhorses in Oz but no horses? How does that even happen? How does anyone ever manage to do fieldwork or farming, and why is there a scarecrow at all in a country where there are no chickens and no horses…?

In a weird way, it feels like the human world is almost a contradiction to Oz, upsetting it when humans visit. It’s as if our world can’t co-exist with the fantasy world and constantly causes discord and confusion. There are people from our world who prefer it in Oz, like the Wizard and Billina – but there are also people like Jeb, who constantly say they’re not happy here and want to get home.

Like Dorothy in the first book.

Is that a class thing?

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Dick Martin (1961)

Possibly. I think Baum might be saying something vague about people functioning best in their own spheres. If so…he doesn’t carry through on it very well. I think Baum wants very much to say that Oz is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there, but with each passing book, he finds that harder and harder to keep up.

It’s almost as if, rather than painting it as a great utopia, Baum is still working through some issues with Oz, and for the moment he’s sort of ambivalent about it. What seems uncanny about the novel might come out of Baum’s indecision about magical solutions – whether that’s analogous to technology or industry or even gender emancipation. He’s really excited by them but also really uncomfortable, and he doesn’t subscribe to them personally.

I think it’s reasonable to cast L. Frank Baum as what a friend of mine would call socially liberal but personally conservative, where he believes in these progressive ideas as a whole, for society, but doesn’t subscribe to them necessarily himself. Does that make any sense?

Absolutely, although you could also say the reverse, I suppose: he inherits these very conservative impulses, but there’s something in the times that makes him continually doubt them.

The Verdict

Did you enjoy revisiting Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Sarah?

Yes, I did. I had been worrying about whether or not I would like the book as an adult; I enjoyed it more than I did as a child, but I still think it is one of the weaker of the Oz series. Bear in mind, of course, that when I call it one of the “weaker Oz books,” I mean my childhood self only read it twenty or so times as opposed to thirty or forty! Did you enjoy it?

Yes, I really did. I was prepared not to not like it, because over the years I’ve told people, “Oh, it’s one of my favorite Oz books,” and I know you’ve always raised an eyebrow at that, and the people I’ve recommended it to have gone, “Hmm, I didn’t really like it…” I actually felt it was really, very well written up to a point, but it was just lacking in charm, and the plot is like someone whipping the needle off a record.

 

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John R. Neill (1908)

What I’d say is that there are a lot of good moments in the book, but it’s lacking momentum.

If you knew a child who had read the first three books, would you give them this one or just skip straight to The Emerald City of Oz?

I think If I knew a child who had enjoyed the first three, I would give them this book – because they’re going to be hooked by now, and at the very least, they’re going to enjoy meeting the Wizard again, and they’re going to enjoy these new strange adventures with Dorothy. Where I diverge from previous books is that I wouldn’t give this book to someone who hadn’t read any of the others. It doesn’t make a particularly strong “first Oz book.”

Haven’t we crossed that line already? It’s become a series now. Would any of the future Oz books stand by themselves?

Actually, yeah – I think there are a few still to come.

I guess we’ll be testing that theory from month to month.

Absolutely, Nick. As you say, we’ve crossed the Rubicon, and there’s no turning back now. It’s a long road ahead – in fact, somewhat literally…

Are you Team Nick or Team Sarah? Where do you stand on this month’s book? Tell us, please

Next Time

road-preview-2THE ROAD TO OZ

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.

Ozma of Oz (1907)

It’s time to return to the land of Oz – not just for us, but for Dorothy, too!

ozmacoverFollowing one book set entirely in the Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum brings back the Kansas heroine of his original big success. In his author’s note, Baum tells of the many “sweet little letters” from young readers who pleaded “to know ‘more about Dorothy’; and they ask: ‘What became of the Cowardly Lion?’ and ‘What did Ozma do afterward?’” If he were to answer all their questions, Baum says, he would be “obliged to write dozens of books to satisfy their demands.”

We know now that dozens upon dozens of books did follow Ozma of Oz; what his readers did not know then was that Baum had already signed a contract to provide the first two. After a wonderful fable and a marvelous cash-in, Baum was preparing to take Dorothy down a gold-paved road to the Emerald City and beyond: the Oz books had become a series.

Episode III: A New Hope

wp-1476752796264.jpgThis is usually the last Oz book anyone in mainstream culture has even vaguely heard of, says Sarah, but the really weird thing is that this is the first true Oz book. Right?

Not for me, says Nick. I definitely knew Wizard and Land before I even found a copy of this book. I’m sure I also saw Return to Oz a few times before I came to the book it was based upon. How about you?

Well, I genuinely don’t remember which Oz book I read first. I know it wasn’t Ozma. This is the first Oz book I can put a date on, though, because my mother wrote it on a bookplate for my birthday in 1989. I would’ve been six.

Documentary evidence! This is why people should write in books.

I agree, but what I’m saying about Ozma has nothing to do with when I read it. I meant that it’s the first in the “series,” the first that is recognizably the Oz we fans know.

That’s so true. It’s the first book that treats Oz as a place which is truly escapist, even idealized: a place we might wish to – and can – return to without breaking the mode in which we read it.

All the elements are in place now for the long haul. This is the “pilot” for the series in a way that Wonderful Wizard is not, and it’s the first Oz book Baum wrote with the specific intention of perpetuating a series.

nick-meets-ozma-of-ozI must admit it sometimes felt weird to read it as it makes that transition. It’s the first book where you need prior knowledge to prevent your head spinning round every other page.

I’ve always found it a hard book to gift for that reason. Often, I will give a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to friends with young children, but I don’t think – good as it is – that it’s really the book I want to be giving. I want to give them a “real” Oz book. I want to give them a copy of Ozma of Oz, but I can’t.

Baum does deliver quite a lot of backstory, in a very funny way, I thought. Dorothy keeps telling her new friend Billina about the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and Billina – a talking chicken – is like, “Yeah, right. As if!” Reading in sequence, though, you do feel a significant shift. The world created for the fable of Wonderful Wizard – the girl who arrived so satisfactorily “Home Again” at the end – is suddenly on the move again.

Will the Real Dorothy Gale Please Stand Up?

Well, that’s the other thing that’s a little peculiar – this is the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the novel, as opposed to The Wizard of Oz, the musical extravaganza from 1902. Baum’s actually writing a fairy story again – not a theatrical satire – and he’s clamped down on a lot of the elements that made Land of Oz feel so stagey. He’s already reworked a lot, too.

Are you thinking of our heroine?

I am indeed. Blonde Dorothy is not Brunette Dorothy. Brunette Dorothy lives in a shack on the Kansas prairie, with her dull-as-ditchwater aunt and uncle. Blonde Dorothy has an uncle who takes a sailing ship to Australia! She’s fashionable! She speaks in catchy slang! She’s almost totally different in every way!

I’ve never understood that weird thing John R. Neill shows her wearing. Baum mentions her gingham dress, but Neill has her in some (supposedly fashionable) unflattering bag-type thing and impeccable shiny black shoes.

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Detail from The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck by W.R. Bradford and John R. Neill (1909)

I think it probably was fashionable; the female heroine of Neill’s contemporaneous comic page, The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck, is dressed in exactly the same style of clothing Dorothy wears in this and the next few books. His art really emphasizes the shift in Dorothy’s character, though. Did you, like me, have a weird disconnect, as if you were reading the adventures of an entirely different child?

In my head, this Dorothy is a little older, which explains the way she talks.

Her age would account for a bit of it, sure, but where did Uncle Henry get his money?

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Dick Martin (1961)

Through these hitherto unknown relatives in Australia, of course! The Gales of Canberra! I’m sure we’ll hear lots more about them in the next book.

Well, apparently they’re a huge, spread-out family. They’re off to Australia at the start of this book, and the next one finds them with other relatives in San Francisco. It begs the question: why was Dorothy ever placed in the care of destitute relatives?

Did you like Blonde Dorothy more or less than Brunette Dorothy? Could you blur them together somehow?

Yeah, if I squint. I think I like Brunette Dorothy better, because she has sheer determination on her side, but I’m more familiar with Blonde Dorothy. She’s definitely less attractive, though; she’s grown rather haughty in her old age.

Oh yes; she doesn’t approve of Billina! She point-blank refuses to let her to call herself Bill.

Billina’s really taken on the role of Brunette Dorothy as the one who’s not going to be put down, the one who’s not going to just roll over and play dead, the one who’s got all sorts of common sense. She’s the hero of this book. It should be called Billina in Oz.

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John R. Neill (1907)

She’s almost a successor to Chick the Cherub, in more than one way.

Oh no. Not again!

Don’t worry, I’m not about to claim Billina as a trans icon of the early 20th century – but she is another character who really doesn’t care whether she behaves like a girl or a boy and has an androgynous name because, well, she was born a chick: gender neutral. For me, her big line is, “I don’t care what you call me, so long as I know it’s me!”

It’s a good point. There is, actually, a stage version of the book out there – Ozma of Oz: A Tale of Time, by Susan Zeder – which uses the story as a springboard for inter-generational understanding, of all things. I haven’t seen it performed, but one of the major features is Bill – not Billina, Bill – who is played as a “human-sized chicken.” Yes, really.

Goodness! It’s funny, though, because Billina gets a lot of Classic Baum on Broadway Repartee in this book. I was thinking: if he did plan on adapting this for the stage, would he have actually had her onstage as a giant chicken?

The mind boggles.

She wouldn’t have fit under the Nome King’s chair in that case, but I’m getting ahead of myself….

Scary Movie Double Feature

Indeed, we digress. In our version, there will be no inter-generational understanding, as Uncle Henry is left on board while Dorothy is washed overboard. Then we find ourselves in the land of Ev with Dorothy and her new pal Billina. These are, I think, some really lovely scenes that I’m not sure I appreciated as a child.

Yes, the pair of them just head out to explore their new surroundings. It’s extremely satisfying to have neither of them shivering and wishing they were home.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Absolutely. All the initial material in Ev is classic Baum, too: wandering around, examining the place, having an ethical discussion about food sources. There are such nice details: the contents of the dinner pail, Dorothy having to dry out her socks, Billina hunting for insects. It really keeps the reader in the moment.

Suddenly: the Wheelers! Now, because I found them so terrifying in Return to Oz, I’m never sure what we’re supposed to make of them when they turn up here.

Exactly. I am aware that my entire interpretation of the Wheelers (and indeed, huge chunks of this book) comes from Return to Oz, and that’s not an association I can shake. They’re definitely unnerving in the book, even as they’re also wacky and nonsensical. Their wheels are made out of keratin, apparently. Think about that.

The fact that they’re beautifully dressed, in straw boaters and ruffs – even though they live on the coast, spend their time shouting abuse at people, and have no fingers or toes – makes them truly surreal and unlike any of the other magical occurrences in Ev, which maintain a sort of Zixi-ish, fairy tale aura. That being said, Princess Langwidere…

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John R. Neill (1907)

…is satire. She’s satire, right? She’s every modern lady who has to buy this week’s new hat. Not to mention, she’s probably a slightly teasing judgment on moody women.

Yes, her hall of head-cabinets actually resembles a hat shop full of mannequins, doesn’t it? I like the way she can’t quite be bothered to be villainous; Return to Oz makes her more frightening than Baum intended. Dorothy is never expressly afraid of either Langwidere or the Wheelers. They’re just rude people who get in her way.

Again, we’re getting into how Return to Oz coded this for us, but I’m not sure Baum or his audience realized how bloody creepy it would all look on film. These characters are just meant to be weird, not truly scary.

It’s worth remembering that Baum’s generation hadn’t road-tested the effects of this sort of material on child readers. Over in Britain, E. Nesbit has just written the Psammead trilogy, and The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables are still a year away. This is children’s literature in beta.

Guaranteed to Do Everything but Live

We’re overlooking what is surely one of the weirdest and most imaginative characters in Baum’s entire oeuvre, though, and that’s probably because he’s just not that strange to us today. I’m talking, of course, about Tik-Tok.

Yes, the marvelous mechanical man who does everything but live!

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John R. Neill (1907)

I always liked Tik-Tok; I think it’s quite hard to not like Tik-Tok. On rereading the book, though, I was taken with how much Baum hovers on his manufacturedness. It’s so beautifully presented. I love the engraved plates Dorothy reads: “Things, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything But Live.” “Guaranteed to Work Perfectly for a Thousand Years.” “Manufactured Only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev.”

Yeah, I love that too. We get a rich backstory for him and for his creators, and Baum keeps adding to it, bit by bit. You can feel Baum’s enthusiasm flowing as he writes – essentially about inventors like him. It’s far more than the plot demands, but it’s where the Oz books come alive.

Right. Tik-Tok doesn’t actually do very much. In the second half of the story, he really only pops up to be wrong, again and again, but he solidifies in your mind because of all that detail and backstory, right at the first.

One disappointing thing about this book for me is that we don’t get so many of those funny, cod-existential conversations from Marvelous Land. We only have a minute or two of random bitching: “Well, we may both have been manufactured, but I’m alive.” Tik-Tok doesn’t care about any of it. It’s amazing to me how many similar characters Baum has created after only three books, but they each have incredibly strong identities.

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Skottie Young (2011)

I agree, and Tik-Tok is probably the next-to-last character to really catch the public imagination. He still works today, too: bring up Return to Oz, and someone’s going to give you a half-formed memory of Tik-Tok. There’s a whole slew of tiktoks in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, and a version of him even pops up in the Disney videogame Epic Mickey 2.

It’s true that he doesn’t really do anything, though. It’s almost as if, in the last third of the book, Baum goes “Whoops, too many characters, better make thirty of them inanimate…”

Here Comes Everybody

Similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this book has an awkward three-act structure. Up to now, it’s been all action, but the entire second act of the book is pretty much just people having meetings. Dorothy is sprung from the tower almost immediately by Ozma and her retinue, we learn that the royal family have been enchanted by the Nome King, and it’s off to the Nome Kingdom.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Yes! Lots of chatting and mingling and some business with a completely superfluous new talking animal, the Hungry Tiger, who admittedly gets a lot of fun lines.

He does. He’s actually more of a presence than the Cowardly Lion, whom Baum will sideline from here on out. Will no one stand up for a Cowardly Lion?

Actually, I was glad to see the Cowardly Lion back. He was never my favourite character as a kid, but here I think he’s absolutely adorable and somewhat important. Baum seems to imply a comparison between him and all those captains and generals who are always running away.

Ah, yeah – the army of Oz. Why are they in this book? They’re the one holdover, I felt, from the theatre, as if they’re supposed to break into comic song somewhere.

Actually, I think they’re important. They’re Baum working through more issues of masculinity and the military and his own ill-health. One general even uses the excuse of heart disease at one point, which would be quite pointed coming from Baum.

Oh, I don’t think I buy that. I think Baum’s just being rascally and showing up authority, as usual. The Tin Woodman makes nearly the same joke about heart disease in Wizard.

But that’s the Tin Woodman talking to the Lion. Here it’s a general excusing himself for letting others risk their lives before him.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Returning to the second act, we do get Dorothy’s first reunion with her old friends, but curiously, we never really see her meet her future bosom pal, sole confidante, and possible girlfriend, Ozma – the eponymous hero of the book!

Oh yes, I hadn’t noticed! It’s like the first meeting of the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart!

Why is Ozma of Oz the title of this book, anyway? It sounds good – for once – but it’s hardly representative of the story. Ozma doesn’t make her first appearance until page 103 out of 270, and she’s a terrible, naive leader! She just waltzes in and proclaims and expects people to… what, tremble? Realize they were wrong and apologize?

Baum mentions fan letters about her in his preamble, so I’m assuming she must have had some popularity after her fleeting appearance in Marvelous Land. Perhaps it’s simply because she is a heroic little girl, like Dorothy, but Baum himself doesn’t seem interested in her the way he is in, say, Dorothy. When they come to the gates of the Nome King, they only get inside because Dorothy has the humility to ask if they can come in.

Quite. And there we have our third act – and our big confrontation.

Make Ev Great Again

I’m more used to the openly villainous Ruggedo of the later books, but I love the Roquat of the Rocks version of the Nome King that we first meet here. He’s not a mastermind villain: he’s a businessman. In her article, “Beneath the Surface of Ozma of Oz” (The Baum Bugle, Spring 2002), Suzanne Rahm points to turn-of-the-century moguls like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as inspiration, and I think that’s exactly right. The Nome King is all about the monopoly of power, the hoarding of things. It is – I’m sorry, Nick, I’ve got to say it – an amazingly appropriate book to be reading in the final days of the candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

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Dick Martin (1961)

I thought exactly the same thing, Sarah, although the Nome King is rather more charming and articulate and fun to be with.

Oh, definitely; the Nome King’s someone you could actually tolerate at a dinner party. As with any business mogul, though, he prides himself on his manipulation and gamesmanship.

Yes, there’s something a bit Alice in Wonderlandish about the way he plays with language. “Oh, it would be cruel to enslave these people, so I turned them into tableware.”

Right. I like that bit – it’s funny, and it’s logical, but it’s totally without compassion. The cunning trick of the King of Ev’s “long life” is pretty good, too.

There’s something very sinister about the idea that Evoldo was given a long life – and if he throws it away, it’s not the Nome King’s concern.

Of course, we’ve only recently been reading an earlier appearance from the Nome King. We both entered a contest run by the Oz Club to finish Baum’s novel King Rinkitink , originally abandoned in 1905 and awkwardly rewritten as Rinkitink in Oz in 1916. Nobody really knows how much of it became Ozma, but we know it did have at least some influence. Did the contest give you a different perspective on the Nome King?

Apart from the fact that Ozma of Oz is far more elegantly structured than the adventures of Prince Inga, I do think the Nome King changes in emphasis depending on the villains with whom he shares the narrative. King Rinkitink features two bad guys so incredibly unpleasant that there’s no way Baum could resolve things without Inga running them through. There, The Nome King takes the role Langwidere has here: a minor obstacle for the characters. Ozma works so much better – for me and for Baum, I think – in making him the opponent most important to the narrative.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Oh gosh, I just totally disagree.

Oh!

I think he fulfils almost exactly the same role, to the point where I’m relatively convinced that King Rinkitink originally ended with the “game” in the ornament room, and that it was lifted almost wholesale into this novel. The Nome King of Rinkitink and the Nome King of Ozma are, to me, fairly indistinguishable. They’re both businessmen, and they’re both fond of eliminating their opponents in creative ways. Neither of them is openly villainous.

I think my point is that Baum switches to a different, less earthly kind of villainy because it would mean pushing his heroes into more conventional, military heroism than he wants from them.

Perhaps I’m resisting a certain interpretation of the Nome King because I’m worried that it’s simply my “Return to Oz brain” talking. It’s hard; as much as I love the ornament room sequence, for instance, I can’t resist thinking that the film does it better, in a more streamlined fashion.

Yes, it’s hard to deny that movie’s influence on the way we see the book, and perhaps the Nome King in particular because he is so radically re-envisioned, including the way they defeat him. Maybe we should do a blog post just about the movie…?

Hmm…. The end of the book is actually the downward slope for me, because the Nome King just kind of gives up. It’s the latest, and perhaps least guilty, entry in a long line of books that Baum doesn’t quite seem to know how to finish.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Perhaps Baum wanted to keep Roquat as a returning villain? It’s not just that he doesn’t know how to finish; he basically resolves the book by recycling bits from the first two, which doesn’t bode well. Royals in enchanted disguise; someone in disguise who gets picked up by mistake; Dorothy getting everyone home with the villain’s magic article of clothing; and the Scarecrow re-enacting the Wicked Witch’s demise with an egg thrown in anger.

Yes, but Return to Oz – and even later Oz books – makes a far bigger deal of eggs being poison to Nomes. Here the Nome King basically acts like a wet cat. Last I checked, it’s hard to wipe corrosive acid out of your eye!

Ozma of Oz: A Good Egg

To be honest, Sarah, we had so much fun getting to this point, I really don’t care about the flaws. There are so many good characters in this book. Add the improvement in plotting – on Marvelous Land, as well as King Rinkitink – and I really enjoyed Ozma of Oz. How about you?

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Unpublished cover by John Romita (1976); colors by Eric Shanower (1987)

Oh, yes. I think it’s a wonderful book and probably one of the strongest in the series. To return to that idea of it being “the first real Oz book,” I feel like this is possibly Baum’s best standalone fantasy story, just as an entertainment. No overwhelming morals, no adherence to fairy tale tradition, just Baum being Baum and sort of relaxed about it. It’s possible, of course, that this is the first book he really felt secure about ahead of time because of his contract. If so, I think that security shows. 

I would definitely buy this for a child today, and I think it would still be loads of fun to read aloud. How about you? 

Oh, absolutely. I think we should all make that our goal. In the next calendar year, give a copy of Ozma of Oz to at least one child you know, or read it aloud to them, and do all the voices.

Mission accepted. Oh, and I’m really looking forward to next month’s book; I loved Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a small boy, and we finally get to see the Wizard back in action.

Before that, though, we’ve got a Halloween treat for you. It’s a special podcast we’ve recorded about the film mentioned so many times in this month’s blog: Return to Oz. Let us know what you think – or follow us on Facebook!

So, gentle reader: what do you like about Ozma of Oz? Tell us in the comments! 

Next Time

dotwiz-1908-illo-3

DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ

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.