L. Frank Baum’s 1902 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz exists as a terrific tale of adventure, which also teaches some worthwhile lessons about appearances and virtue and equality. It is at its core a children’s book – but it is written with wit, tells an interesting story and is enhanced by some lovely illustrations (W.W. Denslow illustrator).
Of course it is hard to discuss Baum’s work without discussing the classic movie which I suspect everybody has seen – certainly I have well before thinking of checking this book out. The film distills the story here and uses many of the elements, including the tornado, the munchkins, the flying monkeys and such. But the book is more expansive, and sets up a universe which Baum would return to again and again. Oz is not just a place with a yellow brick road.
Dorothy Gale, as everybody knows, is a young lady who lives in Kansas with her uncle and Aunt Em. Kansas is no paradise, but it is home, and when Dorothy is in the house with Toto and the tornado hits, we all know how this goes. The house ends up in Munchkinland and kills the Wicked Witch of the East and sets the Munchkins free. This causes much rejoicing and Dorothy ends up with the witch’s silver shoes.
What I did not know of course – and the movie largely leaves behind – is that the Winkies are in the West and the Munchkins are in the East and ruled over by Wicked Witches while Good Witches look over the North and the South. In the film we have Glinda taking care of Dorothy throughout, whereas in the book we have the job split. On the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and one of the fun ironies of the book is how the companions seem uniquely equipped with what they seem to be looking for.
The Tin Woodman wants a heart – but of course he cries and the tears rust him and Dorothy has to oil him to make sure things keep working. Similarly the Scarecrow is the one who often thinks of solutions to their problems, such as hiding them in his straw when the Wicked Witch of the West sends bees after them. The Cowardly Lion wards off the Wicked Witches Winkie attacks before the Flying Monkeys come in to ruin the day.
There are other touches here that the movie lacks. The flying monkeys have been enslaved too – and when Dorothy vanquishes the Witch, the monkeys suddenly can provide some crucial help. Indeed, the Witch melting and the discovery about the Wizard’s true nature occur more like the 2/3 pole. The journey to find Glinda the Good Witch of the South takes up the last act of the book (in the film the balloon business and Dorothy’s return to Kansas all happen at once). The journey itself has pitfalls including exploration of the other parts of Oz, and an encounter with an exciting encounter with a spider.
Overall the book is a breezy read – and sets up future adventures well. All of the members of Dorothy’s party have important roles to play – even if they don’t think they do. And isn’t that the way it seems to be anyway?