L. Frank Baum, the mind behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born today in 1856. Baum was the seventh of nine, and grew up in New York. He began writing at an early age, and with the help of a printing press his father gave him, he started publishing newspapers and small journals with his brother.
By the time Baum would come to write the story of Dorothy he was 46 years old and having tried many occupations before in newspapers, theatre, and even fancy poultry breeding which apparently was a thing at the time. The book became a best seller for two years after it was published, and was soon turned into a musical stage version. A lot of the novel was altered for the stage, including the removal of the Wicked Witch of the West, and was aimed at adults more than children. The plot is almost nothing like the original, though Dorothy landing on the witch ends up in there, as does the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, though the Tinman and Scarecrow look like characters in a horror film. A summary of this play can be read here.
There have been many adaptations of The Wizard of Oz in many formats (the book and musical Wicked and the film The Great and Powerful Oz the most recent), and Baum himself wrote many more adventures for Dorothy and the Land of Oz. Initially Baum only intended on writing the one book, but the popularity and request for more Oz adventures made him write more. In some ways it is a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia, each book looks at the same area, but different sides of it, and new characters and places are explored, but it is still Oz. Dorothy even goes to live in Oz for a while which would be interesting to read about.
Baum died aged 63, and the final Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was published in 1920, a year after his death. Other writers continued the Oz series though, most notably Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote another nineteen in the series. When I learnt this I was rather glad I only even knew of one book. Similarly to Black Beauty, I think the story is very nice on its own, but I do understand where more stories could be added and sometimes prequels can work better than sequels.
Out of all the stories of Dorothy people remember the original book the most, possibly trumped only by the Judy Garland movie in 1939. It is very hard to review this book without comparing it to the classic movie, but I will try my best not to do it as much. The movie is very different from the book in some parts, while other parts are the same. The book has a bit more danger and violence, though it is only mild.
A cyclone hits Kansas and whirls away Dorothy and her little dog Toto to the magical Land of Oz, where wild beasts talk, silver shoes have magic powers, and good witches offer protection with a kiss. But Dorothy has made an enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West. With her new friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, they brave many dangers in search of the Wonderful Wizard in his Emerald City at the heart of Oz to ask him to grant each of them what they most desire.
Baum wrote in 1900, “the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernised fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” And I think it lives up to this immensely; there are the heroes that can be identified with, and the villains that need defeating. This brings the wonder of the fairytale to life in a new way and in a magical land that is far from the reality of the real world.
The story opens on Dorothy, a young orphaned girl living in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and the scene is set. Baum describes Aunt Em and Uncle Henry as being grey, with sullen looks with a stern face and no reason to be merry anymore. The Kansas landscape is also described as grey, grey prairie on every side, the ploughed land is a grey mass, the house had turned grey, and even the grass was not green, burned by the sun to turn it grey as well.
This description makes Dorothy’s arrival in Oz so much more wonderful; the colours describes gives an obvious contrast to the life she saw at home. The sequence of getting Dorothy to Oz is a simple one: Uncle Henry feels a cyclone coming but before Dorothy could get herself and Toto to safety in the cellar with her aunt, a great wind shakes the house causing Dorothy to fall over. The cyclone arrives suddenly and picks up the house, with Dorothy and Toto still inside.
When the house lands, Baum shows us the difference of Oz compared to Kansas instantly, as the bright colours and sunshine are our first introductions. As Dorothy leaves the house we are then introduced to the Munchkins, the people who live in the land. When the house fell, the Munchkins called for the Witch of the North and it is through the Munchkins and the witch we are told a little about the land.
The Munchkins explain about the four regions and who lives there, while the Witch of the North explains that Oz is an uncivilised country, and as such it still has witches and wizards amongst them, four witches in total, two good and two bad. Having crushed one with her house, Dorothy has freed the land from one of these witches. Dorothy is given the Witch of the East silver slippers as a gift, slippers that hold magical properties but no one knows what they are.
The Witch of the North is introduced as a little old woman, and when Dorothy is faced with the prospect of living with the Munchkins forever, the witch uses her magic to find a solution; this is of course to go to the City of Emeralds and seek help from the Great Wizard, Oz. What I found was interesting was that the slippers were not a key focus initially; in fact Dorothy puts them on the kitchen table at first and forgets about them. Only as she is about to leave she puts the slippers on mainly because her current footwear would be unacceptable for the walk she was about to do.
I enjoyed Baum’s descriptions in this book of characters and of the land; they are simple but very telling at the same time. He uses descriptions well and in the right places, so while the story may change quickly in some places, other parts are prolonged and drawn out. But all the while a lot of it does not delve into anything too deep and emotional; it has the air of practicality and doing what needs to be done.
Through her journey to the city Dorothy gathers companions by the way of a scarecrow, a tinman, and a lion, all choosing to come with Dorothy and ask the Wizard for their own desires. As the four travellers continue, they face many obstacles including deadly poppies, vicious Kalidahs (a monster with the head of a tiger and the body of a bear, oh my!), and a river.
The city itself is described as being beautiful, and Baum captures the feeling of its splendour well. The next stage in the journey begins when, upon meeting the Great Wizard, he gives Dorothy and her companions a mission, only then will he help them. The dangers and mild violence come from the Wicked Witch of the West herself, sending wolves, bees, soldiers, and crows after the group; these however are either killed or scared off by one of the party. The story with the Witch and Dorothy is so different from the movie is what makes it wonderful. There is a plan and a scheme from the Witch’s perceptive and she takes her time.
The act of getting Dorothy home is a long and complex process, we are shown almost all the regions of Oz, and Dorothy and her companions meet all three remaining witches in the land. There are many tasks and quests undertaken before Dorothy can get herself and Toto home, and it is through these journeys that Baum provides us with the fate of the companions and what is to become of them once Dorothy returns.
There are so many more characters and adventures in this book than in the movie it really makes the journey seem a lot more challenging, and puts a lot more emphasis on Dorothy and her friends in their actions and saving themselves. There is magic, but there is also a lot more simple bravery and saving oneself.
When Dorothy eventually returns home we are given the impression that her absence has been in real time, and it was not a dream. That is the best part; I often felt the movie made things too simple by simply having her wake up. The ending is abrupt, but the point is clear: it’s good to be home.
There is no indication of what happens now she has returned, whether things return to their normal grey selves or not, but this is where looking into the sequels helps if you wanted to know, it enables you to see what happens next to Dorothy and her family. It is definitely an excellent story, and one that has been loved by everyone, and often when something has been remade and recreated so often, it is nice to go back and see where it all began.