For those of you who are only familiar with the works of L. Frank Baum through the MGM movie, The Wizard of Oz, I must correct a terrible misconception. Dorothy didn’t dream Oz.
Oz is real. 26 novels real. And The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on which the MGM extravaganza is based isn’t even the best of the series. I am particularly partial to The Patchwork Girl and The Emerald City of Oz.
When I was a child, my mother read to us from her well- loved childhood copies of the Oz books. At the end of every chapter, my brother and I begged for one more chapter– pleeeze! To my mother’s great relief, we eventually were able to read the series on our own. I have read all 26 novels more than once and still find them remarkable.
As Evan Schwartz points out in his biography of L. Frank Baum, Finding Oz, the Oz books were the first authentically American fairy tales. Waves of immigrants had brought their own fables to America, but the Oz books are the first distinctly American fantasy, complete with farms, chickens, and Kansas!
Prior to his late life success as an author, Baum tried his hand at many different occupations, including actor, china salesman, chicken farmer, and journalist. Late 19th C America was an unforgiving environment for the only sporadically employed, but despite his hardships, Baum never lost his good humor or his knack for storytelling.
Schwartz’s account of Baum’s life is more convincing than his efforts at literary analysis. Seeking the mystical meaning behind the Oz stories is a popular exercise. Academics have inflicted similar analysis on A. A. Milne’s Pooh series. (You can find both The Zen of Oz and The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet at your local bookstore.) While it is more than possible that Baum’s writing was influenced by Theosophy to which he, his wife, and mother- in- law were adherents, some of Mr. Schwartz’s other theories seem a bit farfetched. Toto is not just a cute name for dog, but rather taken from the Latin phrase in toto. And even more suspect, is the theory that the character of the Cowardly Lion was inspired by Sitting Bull!
Aside from the overwrought, albeit intriguing, literary analysis, Finding Oz is a first-rate biography. Serious Oz fans will enjoy the discussion of the sources of Baum’s inspiration, but history buffs will appreciate the portrayal of turn of the century America.
This ECW Classic Review was originally published in NFocus magazine.