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.

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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.

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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. 

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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)

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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.