by L. Frank Baum
original illustrator W. W. Denslow
first published 1900
158 pp. (in New York: Sterling, 1999) – 24 chapters
Age: 5 +
Interests: magic, witches, adventure, travel, tornadoes
Also by this author: 14 Oz sequels, of varying quality
A rambling account of the long travels of Dorothy, Toto and her new friends in Oz – Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion. They go through many perils to reach Emerald City, where the mysterious Wizard of Oz assigns them the task of killing the Wicked Witch of the West. This they eventually do, accidentally, as Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her and melts her. Upon returning to the Wizard, they discover him to be a ‘humbug’, or a fake, and not a wizard at all. He pulls off some lame tricks to convince the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion that they now have what they previously lacked, but when he attempts to take Dorothy home to Kansas in a hot air balloon it accidentally leaves without her. The friends set out for the Witch of the South to ask her for help, and after further dangerous escapades that good witch whisks Dorothy back home.
Fans of the Victor Fleming 1939 film will be somewhat surprised, as there are many, many episodes in the book which do not appear in the movie. However the basic quest of Dorothy and her friends remains the same. For the most part, the changes made for the movie version are very welcome – the story has a better shape and is rid of tangential adventures and mundane details. In the book the Wicked Witch doesn’t even appear until the friends set out to kill her, she isn’t dogging their steps the entire way.
As carelessly written as the book is, it’s still a good read, with lots of interest for young listeners. Because it is so rambling it’s a great serial-read, one or two chapters a night is about right. Baum seems to have written it in a “this happened and then this happened and then this happened…” manner, and there is a little too much attention given to what they had for breakfast, what dress Dorothy puts on, and endlessly repeating that the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man wants a heart, etc. The time in the Emerald City is pointlessly drawn out by having them see the Wizard separately, one a day. And not only has the Wizard bamboozled his people into thinking he can do magic, but he has also conned them into wearing green glasses constantly so they think their city is made of emeralds. And yet he’s to be seen as one of the good guys.
The Witch of the West has the Scarecrow torn apart and the Tin Man dropped from a great height by the Winged Monkeys, and the Lion and Dorothy are enslaved for quite a while before Dorothy chances upon the trick of dousing her with water. The Winged Monkeys however help them out in the end, and are not the evil creatures of the movie.
The extra long trip to the South includes fighting trees, china figurine land, and the Hammerheads. As one writer puts it, Baum descends frequently into “trivial zoo-keeping inventiveness”.¹
Baum was adamant that his story would not have the “horrible and blood-curdling incident” of European fairy tales, but his Tin Man does do his fair share of beheading monsters, and chopping fierce wolves entirely in two. The history of the Tin Woodman is fairly gruesome too. He angered a sorceress, who enchanted his axe and caused him to chop off his own arms, legs and head, whereupon he enlisted the help of a tinsmith to rebuild him.
As they travel they are continually attacked by beasts and monsters for no real reason. There’s a fair amount of danger but these things are always less frightening when being read from a book by a parent than when seen on tv.
In conclusion… A rambling and careless, but at the same time quirky and endlessly inventive book. Full of surprises and weird details – entertaining for all ages. (Find an edition with the original illustrations by W. W. Denslow, if you can.)
“The Wizard’s personal power rests upon his ingenuity and bravado – both thoroughly American rather than magical traits. If the Ozian utopia lacked refinement, smacking more of Barnum and Bailey than Old World elegance, it was not unlike America at that time: crude, perhaps, but filled with energy and a sense of radiant power and hope.” ²
¹ Roger Sale, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 237
² Selma G. Lanes, Down the Rabbit Hole; Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature (New York: Atheneum, 1971) p. 98