Tuesday, January 7, 2014

To Oz and Back

Oz has held me in its thrall since I was a child. The MGM movie (the Oz movie) lured me in, but by the time I was 10, I had discovered the books and read as many as I could find in our library.
L. Frank Baum

This fall, I read a 2009 biography of L. Frank Baum, the man who brought us Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and all of the other inhabitants of Oz. The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum was well researched and well written by Rebecca Loncraine, a Welsh writer. Perhaps it takes an outsider (outside of America, that is) to analyze, deconstruct, and interpret the life of the man who dreamed up Oz.

Baum was a complex man, and Loncraine deftly illuminates his strengths and shortcomings. As was the case with most people during that era, Baum lived closely with death, having seen several siblings and cousins die during their and his childhood. Perhaps because of these losses, he appeared to be deeply influenced by the Spiritualist movement in the late nineteenth century. Baum was violently racist and Loncraine does not overlook or excuse this. He was a dreamer, a mediocre storekeeper, a newspaper editor who called for the eradication of all Native American tribes as a final solution to the tensions between tribes and white expansion. He was a theatrical producer and actor, a bankrupt movie producer, a passionate husband, an adoring father.

And, if this biographer is correct, Baum initially resisted being saddled with the burden of being the author of the Oz books. While both delighted and overwhelmed by the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum thought he was done with the whole story. To his dismay, he found himself hounded by children begging for more Oz stories.

Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, having grown tired of his fictional creation having taken over Doyle's life. Baum did not kill off Dorothy, but he tried to end the Oz series after six books. The powerful witch Glinda renders Oz invisible to save it from discovery by dirigibles and airplanes at the end of The Emerald City of Oz (1910). The final chapter of that book is "How the Story of Oz Came to an End," and contains a note from Dorothy that begins "you will never hear anything more about Oz." Baum tells his readers that while that is sad, it is not all bad, "for we have had enough of the history of the Land of Oz."

Like Doyle, who was forced to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life, Baum was forced to return to Oz by the incessant demand of his readers and the need for income. Three years later, The Patchwork Girl of Oz appeared, with Baum indicating that he was once again in contact with Oz via radio signals. After that, Baum produced an Oz book every year of his life, with the last two coming out posthumously.

In time, Baum took to describing himself as the Royal Historian of Oz rather than as the author of the Oz books. In his notes and papers, he expressed his strong conviction that he channeled the stories directly from Oz, not unlike the spiritualists who channeled the dead. Ironically, his publishers printed the first posthumous book with Baum's now traditional note to his readers, making no mention of his death. It is only in the final Baum Oz book, Glinda of Oz (1920), that the publishers reveal to the reader that Baum "went away to take his stories to the little child-souls who had lived here too long ago to read the Oz stories for themselves."

On the strength on Loncraine's biography, I spent a portion of the fall reading the 15 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. (There are two other Oz works by Baum, one of which I read during this time, which are not included as part of the children's Oz books. There is good reason for that.) While I did not read them in chronological order, it is fitting that I read his final book last.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is my favorite and, in my opinion, Baum's cleverest work. That was his return novel when he finally accepted that he could not escape Oz, and to his credit, Baum put his heart into the book.

In the end, Oz is one of those worlds, like Wonderland, like Middle Earth, like the Kingdom of Wisdom, that has always existed even before being reduced to writing. The magic of Frank Baum was that he captured it on paper.

After Baum's death, his publishers continued the tradition of an annual Oz book (always brought out at Christmas) using other authors, until the series wore itself out in 1939. I've never read any of those Oz books, but I have read two other Oz books written for children. One was Visitors From Oz, by polymath Martin Gardner, the other was Dorothy of Oz by Roger Baum, the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum. The Gardner book is rather pedestrian, but his keen knowledge of topology shines through when he (as the narrator) helps Dorothy and friends return to Oz through the use of a Klein bottle.

Roger Baum's book, the first of several Oz books he has penned, reaches back to Oz, the real Oz. He weaves elements of the MGM movie into the story, yet he stays true to the original story. In a mix of both, Roger Baum transports Dorothy from Kansas back to Oz:

Dorothy took Toto up carefully in her arms. She clicked the heels of the silver shoes three times as she had been taught and said, "Take me to Oz!" 

The rainbow became a blur. The prairie disappeared and they flew over the rainbow to Oz.

Roger Baum hints in his prologue that he was channeling his great-grandfather in writing this work. It shows.


Karen said...

I am also a lifelong Oz fan, and I have been reading my eight-year-old daughter the Oz series since the summer. We are reading The Patchwork Girl right now! Recently we watched a made-for-TV movie from 1990 called "The Dreamer of Oz", starring John Ritter as L. Frank Baum. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I have always loved that movie and it makes me cry every time. :)

see you there! said...

I didn't realize there are so many Oz books. The movie is a favorite and I once saw the play "The Wiz". I think that was the name, a take off on the Wizard of Oz.