Under the Influence: L. Frank Baum
Lyman Frank Baum was a man of weaknesses and brilliance in equal mixture, like many men. He bankrupted himself frequently, especially through his love of theater and lack of business acumen. He had prejudices which occasionally showed in print – or in a few instance were deliberately displayed, as they were part and parcel of the times.
But he was also the Wizard of Oz.
L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz exactly at the turn of the century, in 1900. Subsequently he wrote thirteen other Oz novels: The Marvellous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, the Emerald City of Oz, the Patchwork Girl of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz, The Lost Princess of Oz, The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Magic of Oz, and Glinda of Oz.
Most people today know Oz through the Judy Garland movie (which, though early, was far from the first Oz movie – there were several prior versions) or through adaptations or deconstructions such as Maguire's Wicked. But I grew up on the original books. I don't remember when I first read the Wizard of Oz, but it must have been when I was five or six, no later, because for several years thereafter every birthday and every Christmas were guaranteed to be good because I knew there would be a new Oz book somewhere in the presents, and I know I had finished getting the new books by the time I was ready to go to junior high.
In many ways, Oz remains my symbol of paradise. It wasn't a peaceful-yet-dull paradise like the vague image advertisements give of Heaven; Baum's Oz had plenty of dark corners and macabre elements, and was very far from safe. At the same time, it was a place where good always eventually prevailed, where a child could be a hero, where no creature – human or dog or horse – was anything less than a person.
More than anything, though, Baum's stories first taught me that girls and boys were just the same – and that a girl could be just as much a hero as any boy. Dorothy Gale, dumped by a tornado into a completely different world, manages to make her way across an entire country with guts, honesty, determination, and a simple moral certainty that gathers others to her – and makes those others more than they were, teaches them to achieve their own goals, so that by the time they are able to make their requests of the Great and Terrible Oz… they've already achieved their dreams. The old Humbug just lets them believe he's granting their wishes.
Dorothy returns to Oz – and other fairylands – many times, and each time her determination, resourcefulness, and courage reinforce our first impressions. The other heroes of the Oz series are often female – Trot, Betsy, the great Ozma herself, Polychrome – and even the males are often accompanied by one or more girls or women who help guide them. Offhand, the only one I can think of in which there are effectively no female characters as part of the main adventuring group is Rinkitink In Oz, with the main group being King Rinkitink, Prince Inga, and the talking goat Bobo.
Oz is not, of course, free from sexism or racism, especially when read as an adult with more perspective – the sequence of progressively removing the enchantment from Bobo has some particularly unfortunate implications involved – but at the same time it shattered some common assumptions in various books.
I think it might have been something like 40-60 years before other books tackled an issue that was almost casually presented, and then dealt with as though it were the most natural thing in the world in The Marvelous Land of Oz: a young boy, Tip, who escaped from an evil witch and has traveled the length and breadth of Oz, discovers that he is in fact the transformed Princess Ozma.
That's right: our courageous boy hero, who has been our main viewpoint character for the entire book, is a girl – and not just any girl, but the lost heir to the throne of Oz, Ozma, one who must resume her true form and take the throne to bring Oz back to its proper state. Ozma had been taken by the Wizard when she was a baby and given to the witch Mombi to hide away where she would never be found; Mombi promptly transformed the baby to a boy and raised him as a not-very-well-treated servant.
Tip is not happy about this. At the same time, he has a strong sense of responsibility, and eventually accepts that this is something that has to happen… and so is transformed back to Ozma of Oz, and finds that with the transformation comes understanding and acceptance… and that she doesn't have to give up the friends that she has won along the way.
What a sequence of events! And even more so to find it in a childrens' book written a hundred-plus years ago! Something that basically says, "You know, there really isn't that much difference between boys and girls, it's who you are INSIDE that counts, and what you do with it!", and shows this in no uncertain terms.
Oz also gave me, for the first time, a sympathetic villain: the Nome King. Roquat – later Ruggedo, the Red – was also extremely frightening in a low-key, insidious way, especially for a childrens' book, but in Tik-Tok of Oz he actually grew and learned. I also saw "sequelitis" take its toll, when poor Ruggedo, having been clearly choosing a way to reform in the end of Tik-Tok of Oz, suddenly becomes a full-on scheming villain again in The Magic of Oz.
The later books also taught me a concept that I had no word for until decades later: retcon. In the early Oz books, you could die in Oz. It was well-accepted and there were several instances where Our Heroine nearly DID die at the hands of something nasty. There were also other things – mentions of money and shops and so on – which implied some form of typical economy. But about the time of Emerald City of Oz, Oz became a fairyland in which no one ever dies, where no one has to work, etc.; I later heard that at least some of this sudden change had to do with Baum's political shifts to a more socialistic set of beliefs.
Some of those also led to discovering the idea that a blessing can be a curse – a horrific one. Consider, if you will, the case of King Kynd of Jinxland, plummeting down a (literally) bottomless chasm, forever, unable to die, unable to escape. Or his successor, King Phearse, sunk to the bottom of a lake and buried under stones that prevent him from ever escaping. Or Princess Langwidere, who has within her cabinets dozens of heads of beautiful girls so that she can change her own appearance by removing her current head and replacing it with another… but the heads also have some of their own personality, so exactly who the Princess is varies depending on what head she has chosen…
These books spoke to me for years, telling me that a world can itself be an adventure, that the characters can be anyone or anything and it doesn't matter if they're men or women or even, technically , alive. It matters only if we can understand them, and sympathize with them, as they go through their adventures.
Sometimes they still speak to me, and when they do… it's rather forceful. I have written an entire Oz-based novel, titled Polychrome, and it was not originally my intent to do so. But once I had the idea for the book, it sat at the back of my mind, and built itself up, and then one day I woke up and it was basically sitting there in my forebrain saying "Oh, hi! You know those other books you were working on? The ones you have contracts for? Well, either you write a chapter or two of me every week, or you won't be able to write anything else at all!"
It's a bit … disconcerting when your own brain takes you hostage. But given that it was an Oz-based novel, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; it was a very Ozzy experience in a way.
The world of Oz is still one of my favorite sources of wonder and whimsy; I have visited it with all of my children old enough to listen to them, and I will read them to my daughter Domenica when she is old enough. And a part of me will always be there, taking a step down the yellow brick road…