August 1, 2014
The (Original) Road to Oz -- Part Three
My copies of the Oz books (all forty titles) sit behind me on two bookshelves as I type this. They're well-worn, slightly faded reprints that could be purchased or ordered new with reasonable ease in the late 1950s-early 1960s. I would venture that I've read each one perhaps thirty or more times since I was a little boy.
And while I didn't "date" them when I got them, I can pick up certain volumes and remember: This was a Christmas present that first year I knew about the books; I opened this under the tree when we lived on Hope Avenue in 1958. Or: These are the two books my dad brought back for me from Wichita, when he played in the semi-pro baseball tournament when I was nine. Or: This is the one I "coerced" my grandmother into giving me the money to go on the bus downtown to buy on a hot summer day. Or: This is the one Aunt Norma and Uncle Ralph gave me, when she tried to play a little joke by wrapping it in a pair of corduroy trousers and camouflaging it in a department store clothes-box -- so that I'd think I was “only” getting apparel (yuck!) for my birthday, and not an Oz book.
Another memory as I look back: To me, Oz was "real.” Even as a child, I knew it couldn't be -- but, in an extraordinary and unique way, it nevertheless and always was. L. Frank Baum and his successor "Royal Historians" had a remarkable facility for drawing you into their stories, pulling you into the printed page. The Oz books had what fan and scholar C. Warren Hollister later defined as a three-dimensionality sometimes missing from the more stylistic (and often more critically-reverenced) children's literature of the twentieth century. From chapter one, page one of an Oz story, a reader actually went along on the journey being taken by Dorothy or Ojo. Or Ozma or Speedy. Or Peter or Jam or Robin. TV viewers of a certain age will remember a show called You Are There. The Oz books were the in-hand, written equivalent of such programming.
I didn't read the series in sequence – or, to put it more clearly, in the order in which the books first were published. My reading jumped from title to title, as each was provided me. And while I certainly was aware that multiple authors were involved, it was all a gleeful Ozzy “wash” here – and very definite, active history. This was a comprehension perhaps best described by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote more "official" Oz books than any other series' scribe. In a promotional article back in the day, she sagely, omnisciently observed, "A child who may not be able to name offhand the capital of Nebraska or Montana can tell you in a flash the capital of Oz and is often more familiar with its principal rivers, mountains, rulers, points of interest, and historical landmarks than with those of his native state -- perhaps because he considers Oz his native state.”
(To paraphrase a line of dialogue from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film: That's me all over!)
In the interest of complete clarity, it might help to interject that Baum wrote fourteen full-length Oz novels (and six Oz short stories) between 1900 and 1919. Thompson took over after Baum's passing -- at the specific invitation of his publishers -- and contributed nineteen more titles on an annual basis through 1939. John R. Neill, who'd illustrated every Oz book but Baum's first, offered three more in the early 1940s, until his death and World War II brought the series to a temporary halt. Thereafter, life-long Baum enthusiast and collector Jack Snow did two more books (plus the one-volume "encyclopedia, Who's Who in Oz); Rachel Cosgrove Payes and the mother/daughter team of Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw each did another. (The McGraws' Merry-Go-Round in Oz appeared in 1963 and capped the list of official titles, although The International Wizard of Oz Club published additional Oz manuscripts by Thompson, Payes, and the McGraws in later years.)
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Oz books were the Harry Potter series of their day. If always geared toward young readers, they nonetheless flourished and created a genuine furor and ongoing flurry of passion in their quickly-established, cross-generational fan base. Especially in the case of the early titles, this all happened by word of mouth and shared experience; there was no internet, no social network, no media broadcasting to fashion fascination, propel popularity, or stimulate sales
As I guess I don’t need to confess, these three most recent blogs have been heavily personal, in addition to serving as homage to the actual foundation of the greater Oz legend. But there’s a purpose – beyond the anecdotes – to the topic. We’ve long since passed into an era where reading has become a lost art for many children. But if you have youngsters to whom you read, may I recommend the Oz books? Or do you know someone who's learning to read -- and isn't already uber/faux-sophisticated by present-day video games and grow-up-too-quickly movies and television? These days, it’s true that a journey “to” Oz may have to be launched at a comparatively early age if the stories are to impact. But offer an Oz book. Read aloud an Oz book. They still work.
Case-in-point: A grandmother brought her barely five-year-old grandson to a signing I did here in New York City last November. He'd already been read the Baum Oz books, and the family was starting on the Thompson titles. He was a wide-eyed, enthusiastic, walking databank and quietly posed to me a couple of trivia questions about plot and characterization that adult Oz fans of my acquaintance were trying to unravel fifty years ago.
Or, to put it in a phrase of my own: That’s the original road to Oz….
P.S. Just a heads-up for any of you with cable television! August marks the annual “Summer of the Stars” programming from Turner Classic Movies, which means that every twenty-four hours for the next month, a different denizen of motion picture history gets a marathon celebration. Beginning Monday the 4th, at 6 a.m. EDT, The Star is Judy Garland – and there’ll be an even dozen of her pictures on tap to enliven and entertain. You can’t go wrong J
Article by John Fricke