Monday, September 9, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz #1) by L. Frank Baum

It seems that the 1939 "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" film starring Judy Garland is more popular today than the book. Shown regularly on television, I know that I have watched it at least a dozen times over the decades. Now that my daughter is grown I haven't seen it in ten years. Now that I'm going to be a grandma, I'm sure it'll make a comeback in our family. The book is similar and different than the movie. While the book's prose is surprisingly simple, the appealing characters and well-constructed story make it a fun read for both children and adults. Baum doesn't write with great tension nor does he drag out episodes in too much detail. If anything, I kept thinking to myself, "she's already in munchkin land? ...the witch is already dead? ...I didn't know about the adventure in china town, although I just saw it in the newest Oz movie... and so on." The action is quick and the secondary characters keep the story from becoming so allegorical that they are unrelatable to the reader; their struggles with self-doubt is a universal emotion that humanizes them. Add to that the strong wizard theme that magic comes from within and not without in the real world and you can see why this story has survived since its first publication in 1900.

Dorothy is an orphan who lives in the gray world of Kansas when a tornado picks up her house and spins it into the alternative world of Oz. She finds herself in the land of munchkins and discovers her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East killing her. The witch's silver shoes (not red like the movie) are given to Dorothy who doesn't realize they have special powers. Nor does the Good Witch of the North know about their powers. In the book, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South doesn't show up until the end of the story with her knowledge of the shoes. Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas and is sent to the Wizard of Oz in Emerald City because she is told that Oz is the only person who can help her. Following the yellow brick road, she makes friends with a Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion who all have problems that they think the Wizard of Oz can fix.  When they meet Oz, he tells Dorothy to kill the Wicked Witch of the West and then he will help her get home.

Dorothy's character didn't interest me as much as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Perhaps that's because she doesn't really change but just has to find the courage to get home. The secondary characters change more and their self-contradictions add depth to their personalities. The Scarecrow thinks he needs brains but on their ensuing adventures he is the planner or "brains of the operation." He is also thoughtful when dealing with others. He is the primary person who looks after Dorothy's well-being in terms of food and rest. The Tinman wants a heart so he can be more kind, but cries when he accidentally squashes a bug on the road and tries to not step on ants. He is the most emotional of the group and Dorothy is continually wiping tears off his face so he won't rust. The Lion wants courage not realizing that doing something dangerous to protect others even though he is afraid, is courage at its best. He does this several times when their lives are in danger. Dorothy must not give up in her quest to get home and must show courage when facing the Wicked Witch. I must say that I didn't particularly think the ending wrapped things up well. The movie actually frames the story better showing more growth in Dorothy's character than the book as she realizes that the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion are all people she knows in her life.

When the group seeks the the Wizard of Oz to answer their problems, they find an ordinary man who can't grant them the magic they thought he could. I like how they find him behind a curtain using ventriloquism and stage tricks to create the illusion of magic. This is what fantasy and fairy tales do... they transport the reader into a make-believe world where monkeys can fly and witches melt. When Dorothy and the three others encounter the harsh reality of their dreamlike world, it is as if the curtain has risen suddenly from the stage. The theater lights are on and it is back to real life. For me, Oz becomes a symbol of the entertainment industry in general, as well as, the concept of stories being a magical escape from reality. When Oz tells Dorothy's group that they have had the power within themselves all along to make their goals come true, it is a reminder that true character comes from within. A timeless message.

5 Smileys

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