Time travel is AMAZING, and all…but Dorothy was right – there really is no place like home.
It’s the first week of my reading journey through time, and I’ve got more than two years of this ahead of me. If I said I wasn’t feeling daunted and lonely and tiny and lost right now, I’d be a great big liar.
So I think it’s fitting that the very first book I’ve chosen to share with you is a the story of a little girl, who finds herself lost in a strange, beautiful land, far from where she belongs. And all she wants is to simply return home…
Here we go. My first ever book review…
The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
First published in 1900
The ruby slippers. The Yellow Brick Road. The Wicked Witch of the West. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion…The Wizard of Oz is a story generations of children have grown up with…but, honestly, that’s more due to the classic 1939 movie than the original book, written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900.
Kids and adults alike know how the story goes – Dorothy lives on a Kansas farm with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em – and her dog, Toto, for company. That’s before Dorothy and Toto are swept up in a twister, and carried away to the magical land of Oz.
Well, at least that’s how the story begins in the film we all know and love. In the book, things are slightly different…
For starters, you can forget about that whole Somewhere Over the Rainbow malarkey. In Oz, the book, Dorothy doesn’t pine for a better life. She’s perfectly happy with what she has – even though it’s not much. Dorothy’s sole companions are her Aunt Em, her Uncle Henry and Toto. The (far too brief!) first chapter gives us a glimpse into orphan Dorothy’s world – and it’s not much fun.
If you thought those filmmakers were sooo clever shooting the opening of The Wizard of Oz in black and white – read the book. The first chapter of Baum’s Oz describes Kansas as a colourless world. Literally. The family live in a rundown shack with only one room, with only the scorched, grey grass of the prairie for company in every direction. Even the two people Dorothy loves most in all the world are portrayed in a palette of stark grey. Uncle Henry is gruff, old and exhausted, while we’re told that Aunt Em, once young and beautiful, is now “thin and gaunt, and never smiled”. The sole piece of colour in their black and white existence is lively Dorothy herself.
We barely get the chance to even meet Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, however, before Dorothy and Toto are carried away to Oz, taking us along for the ride.
First and foremost, The Wizard of Oz is a book for children. Before you’ve even turned the front page, this is made abundantly clear. The language is simple, the print is large, and every few pages, there’s a lovely illustration. The writing glosses over events quickly – for instance, for a 189-page book, only seven of those actually take place in Kansas.
Don’t get me wrong, dear readers. I love books with pictures – in fact, I think more books should have pictures! But it’s important to keep in mind that The Wizard of Oz is a simple book, written for an audience of children. It’s brief, and this brevity might annoy adult readers.
The basics of the story are the same as the movie: upon arriving in Oz, squishing the Wicked Witch of the East and acquiring shiny new shoes (silver in the book – they used ruby slippers in the movie because it looked better in Technicolour) Dorothy must travel to the Emerald City to visit the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, as he’s the only one who can send Dorothy home. Along the way, she’s joined by three characters – you guessed it – The Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, each of whom defines himself by the very thing he believes he’s missing. The three decide to accompany Dorothy to the Wizard of Oz to ask him fulfill their wishes.
On the way to Oz, Dorothy and her companions have a number of adventures, in which they all display that they do, in fact, already have within themselves the qualities they think they lack.
I love the way that the group have so many memorable little episodes through the book. They never simply travel from point A to point B; they always encounter something along the way – whether it’s a terrifying monster, or a tiny land where everything is made from porcelain. In Oz, there’s a new adventure waiting around every corner.
They walked along listening to the singing of the bright coloured birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. They were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in colour they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” the girl asked, as she breathed in the spicy scent of the flowers.
“I suppose so,” answered the Scarecrow, “When I have brains I shall probably like them better.”
“If only I had a heart I should love them,” added the Tin Woodman.
“I always did like flowers,” said the Lion; “they seem so helpless and frail. But there are none in the forest so bright as these”.
– L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, page 63
Hang on – did I say terrifying monsters back up there? Yes I did – because there are monsters in this book.
Be warned – this ain’t no Disney film. Kids’ books back in 1900 apparently aren’t all sunshine and flowers and kittens. The field of flowers from the quote above turn out to have an intoxicating scent, which lulls Dorothy and her friends into a nearly deadly sleep. There are many times when Dorothy’s companions are called upon to kill other creatures (and they seem so innocent in the film!). And there are many moments when all seems lost…
But through it all, Dorothy is there, with a heart packed full of hope. Although Baum’s Dorothy is young, she’s more determined; more ballsy than Judy Garland’s Dorothy ever was. Sure, Dorothy introduces herself to the Wizard of Oz as “Dorothy, the Small and Meek,” just as she does in the movie – but Baum’s Dorothy is not as small and meek as she’d have you believe. The Wizard of Oz might have been written back in 1900 – but it’s a treat for feminists everywhere.
Something I simply can’t resist about The Wizard of Oz is the way it appeals to my childish side. Like many of the best stories for children, The Wizard of Oz is governed by a surprisingly strict set of rules. For instance, once Dorothy bears the kiss of the Good Witch of the North, we are told that no harm can come to her (so the reader can relax a little). There’s also the magical cap, which allows the wearer to summon a tribe of flying monkeys – but there’s a catch. One can only use the cap three times in their lifetime; then, they must give the cap to another. I love these little rules and limitations – and so do kids. Everything about The Wizard of Oz is appealing to children – from the way each land of Oz has a colour all of its own, to the nonsense and the adventure of it all. Did I mention it has pictures? It has PICTURES! What more could a kid want? It’s so delightfully…childish! In a good way, of course.
Even though The Wizard of Oz weighs in at a pint-sized 189 pages, there’s a truckload of fun packed into those few pages; more so than in the movie. Just when you think the story is almost certain to end – it doesn’t. There’s another adventure waiting for Dorothy and her friends. Baum’s skill in crafting his story so it just keeps on going is amazing! In fact, it’s almost like a parent telling his children a bedtime story. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like – because The Wizard of Oz found its origins in the made-up tales Baum used to tell his children before they went to sleep.
And what a way to fall asleep…Oz is a colourful, beautiful world for the young (and the young at heart!) to explore.
But as an adult reader, one can’t help but wonder why Dorothy is so determined to return to Kansas. Compared to Oz, Kansas is lonely and boring. Why doesn’t she just stay in Oz? As Dorothy explains:
“No matter how dreary and grey our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home”.
– L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, page 27
It’s this kind of child-logic, combined with Dorothy’s sheer determination to find her way home that makes The Wizard of Oz such a delightful read.
If you’re looking for a complex book for adult tastes, The Wizard of Oz, although fascinating, might not be it. But if you’re willing to stop worrying about being an adult for just a little while, and let yourself be led on an amazing, colourful journey, filled with characters and adventures you’ll never forget, then grab your basket, your silver shoes – and your little dog, too – and step onto the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy, Toto and their friends.
Unlike Dorothy, you might never want to return home…
The Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Read The Wizard of Oz when the stresses of being an adult become a little too much. Or, even better, read it to the child in your life! It’ll be a great experience for the both of you.
In a word: