Having spent a grueling 21 hours in a plane over the course of two days in order to get from upstate New York to Singapore, my Kindle was an invaluable tool. Since I am a horrific cheapskate, I usually resort to downloading free books whose authors are desperate or whose copyrights have long since expired. So, this means a lot less Harry Turtledove, Christopher Moore and Richard Russo, and a great deal more of Voltaire, Walter Rauschenbusch,…and L. Frank Baum.
Yes, not only the famous Wizard of Oz, but indeed, the entire Oz canon, are available for a song if you download these pieces to your Kindle. Oz wrote about 15 of these novels, creating a legendarium that runs far deeper than the events seen in The Wizard of Oz. Yet, between the 1939 movie, countless stage adaptions, and the recent series of revisionist novels by Gregory Maguire, the actual content in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is often forgotten or misremembered by us. So, here are my impressions from my initial foray into Oz.
- Populism: When I teach late-19th century populism in my U.S. History class, I tend to point out the similarities between Wizard of Oz and Populist programs and values. Many of these are superficial and perhaps silly– the coward who can roar (William Jennings Bryan), the working man (tin man) the farmer (Scarecrow), the heroine from a farm state, the Yellow brick road leading nowhere, suggesting the futility of the Gold Standard, and the saving grace of the silver shoes, demonstrating that free coinage of silver was the proper fiscal policy.
In fact, populism runs far deeper in Baum’s work. Messianic leaders, such as Oz himself, are shown to be “Humbug”, and they inevitably lead to disappointment. Instead, the resources between the four main characters, working together, win the day. Dorothy’s kindness, the Scarecrow’s ability to sustain harm because he is made of straw, the lion’s physical prowess, the Tin Man’s durability all resolve problems the characters come across. And indeed, these discrete problems they face– whether it is a cliff, or traversing a stream, or the poppies that make everyone fall asleep (which make a cameo in the film), make up the bulk of the novel. The characters’ ingenuity (or virtue, which leads to various animal allies like the field-mice or the flying monkeys) saves the day in the end. and, of course, Dorothy could have gotten home on her own the whole time.
- The Wicked Witch is marginalized: Elphaba is sexy now– starring in her own musical and becoming the central character in the Wicked novel. What is fascinating, however, is how small a role the witch plays in all of this. She’s little more than a distant threat, she doesn’t particularly follow Dorothy nor is she obsessed with catching Dorothy. She is also discernibly ugly and mal-formed, a far cry from the green Indina Menzel we are used to.
- Virtually none of the novel takes place in Kansas: All of these elements were conceits added to the film: the parallels between the farm-hands and Dorothy’s companions, the evil neighbor who tries to take away Toto, the wizard and the fortune-teller. Dorothy isn’t misunderstood or ignored by those around her. And, of course, it wasn’t just a dream all along. This changes the nature of things– Dorothy isn’t ungrateful to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, thus changing her motivations.
- Accordingly, Dorothy has less of a character arc in the novel. She’s still the same girl at the end as she was before, and a real development of character doesn’t really take place. Unlike much of Edwardian literature, she learns no real moral lesson nor does she achieve a set of skills, nor is she quite anywhere different at the end of the novel than at the beginning. Neither do the problem-solving abilities of the characters change very much in the novel. Their cleverness and ingenuity is roughly the same when we meet them, as it is after Oz bestows honorary hearts, brains, and courage to the companions.
That’s it for now. And oddly enough, Baum’s Oz-series gets even weirder. The immediate sequel to The Wizard of Oz features a little boy who ends up becoming a full-grown woman at the novel’s end! Yikes.