The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

When I was little, my grandparents had two guest rooms. One was pretty typical: a double bed, nightstands, and a chest full of extra quilts. The other was the grandkid room. It had a hideous woven tweed hide-a-bed couch, a closet with a tub of plastic toys, a hexagon end table full of VHS tapes, and a TV. My brother and I would lay on the hide-a-bed, eat ice cream out of vintage Corelle teacups, and watch movies before going to sleep. The Wizard of Oz and Land Before Time 2-4 were our top picks. Why not the original Land Before Time? She didn’t have it. But that is neither here nor there—today I discuss my first and second read-throughs of L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and how it struck me as someone who grew up with the film.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews
The original front (left) and back (right) cover art.
I think the hyphenation of the title is weird.
Why not just adjust the typeface?


Dorothy lives in a one-room farmhouse in Kansas with her Uncle Henry, her Aunt Em, and her dog Toto. One day, a cyclone carries Dorothy, Toto, and the house away, and drops them in a beautiful place like nowhere she’s ever seen. Dorothy is conveniently met by the Good Witch of the North who tells her that her house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her, setting all of the Munchkins free. Dorothy is anxious to get back to her family, but the Munchkins and Witch can’t help her, so they direct her to seek the City of Emeralds and the Great Wizard Oz.

Like many fairy tales, new friends, magical objects, strange creatures, and social karma are central to the story. Baum writes in his introduction, “It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews
Original title page art.

Review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Confession: I’ve never had much interest in reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but sometime last year my husband bought me La Mirinda Sorĉisto de Oz (an Esperanto translation). After I had such a good time reading La Aventuroj de Alico en Mirlando, I wanted to give Oz a try but figured I’d have an easier time with it if I read it in English first, so I listened to this Librivox version twice—once just to absorb and the second time to appreciate the book as a separate artifact from the film. I did like it better the second time when I could see all of the pieces building up to plot events. But in all, I think I would have appreciated it more if I’d read it when I was very young—probably under the age of eight. 

Things I Didn't Care For:

This book has a lot of repetition with every member of the party meeting the wizard, getting their reward, ect. Small children who are still learning to recognize patterns might appreciate this more. I found it obnoxious, but the differences between the characters helped to keep it from being insufferable. While the film streamlined and tightened the plot, the book has a fairytale-like charm with lots of rambling.

A few other things that bother me about the book:

  • The question of what happened to the Tin Woodsman's beloved Munchkin girl is never answered. After a Wikipedia hunt, I don't think this is even answered later in the series. Please correct me if I'm wrong—I want to know!
  • There's also a depiction of ruling other people groups that I find odd. I can't say whether it's an imperialistic thing or what exactly, but something isn't quite right with the government of Oz. The people and animals are way too eager to be ruled over by someone who once helped them out of a bad situation.
  • Not enough peril. After the Good Witch of the North kisses Dorothy on the head, no harm can really come to her. I always felt like this book was missing something, and I think it's just that the stakes were lowered so far that I didn't care.
  • In spite of removing all of the "heart-aches and nightmares," some of the events in this story are still pretty horrifying—because they are emotionally dishonest.  There's a disturbing lack of consequences. The Wicked Witch of the East just disappears after she dies because  "She was so old...that she dried up quickly in the sun." Some other enemies fall into a gulf and are "dashed to pieces on the sharp rocks at the bottom." *Spoilers* When Dorothy meets the Wizard, he sends her off to kill the Witch, saying "Remember that the Witch is Wicked--tremendously Wicked--and ought to be killed" to try to calm her conscience. Then when the Wicked Witch of the West is melted, there's a weird tonal shift from Dorothy being sorry that she's accidentally killed her, to cleaning up the melted mess with relative indifference. This isn't how psychology works in healthy people, nor should it. *End Spoilers*

I think the core of what annoys me about this book is Baum's basic storytelling philosophy laid out in the introduction:

'the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which...are eliminated...all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.'

Children don’t need sanitized stories. Teaching morality in school doesn’t make it superfluous in our stories, especially for the very young. I'd rather not be beaten over the head with a moral, but theme is still an important part of story structure, particularly in stories of good versus evil that include a measure of violence. 

A Few of My Favorite Things:

*Spoilers* On the way to meet Oz and/or do his bidding, all of Dorothy’s friends exhibit the traits they think they want from the Wizard:

  • The Scarecrow intelligently solves problems—no brains required.
  • The Tin Woodsman is kind and merciful to bugs and other creatures in the wood—at least as kind as if he had a heart.
  • The Cowardly Lion bravely fights to save his friends—fearlessness not required. *End Spoilers*

I also love the debate between the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman about whether having a heart or a brain is better. This is, of course, embedded in the feeling-thinking debate, rather than the actual organs. It wasn't developed enough for me to consider it a major theme in the story, but it could have been.

Weird Book-Film Trivia:

  • The ruby slippers are actually silver shoes—the film changed this for Technicolor reasons.
  • In a weird way, the film's transition from black and white to color fits perfectly with the book. The word "gray" appears in the book 16 times, and 14 of those are in reference to Kansas or someone or something in Kansas. Ten of these happen in the first chapter!

Bottom Line

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn't my type of book, but I knew that before I started reading it. I give this reading experience four out of seven mustaches. I hope to eventually get around to reading my Esperanto translation of this book, but I have no intention of continuing with L. Frank Baum's original Oz series. I do, however, want to read Wicked now.

Have you read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? What did you think of it? Do you agree with Baum’s stance on traditional fairy tales?
Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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