On the day after Christmas, when the biggest toys were either broken or had failed to live up to their glitzy commercial propaganda, I woke early, and found the large, brightly jacketed book untouched on my side-table; when our parents came in a few hours later, I had read well past the halfway point — so hypnotically absorbed, in fact, that I decided to continue reading rather than plant myself (as usual) in front of the morning cartoons. The writing was way above my comprehension level, but as anyone who enjoys reading knows, comprehension isn’t what good fiction is remotely about. It’s about going along for the ride, even when you aren’t entirely certain how the ride works, or where you’re going until you get there.
I found myself immersed in a panoply of voices, and as they chattered, they carried me into fantastically believable landscapes. First, there was the colorful young Munchkin, Ojo the Unlucky, and his soon-to-be-turned-to-stone Unc Nunkie. Or the Crooked (in body, not in mind) Magician, Dr. Pipt, and his devoted wife, Margolotte. Or the magically animated glass cat, Bungle, who constantly alerted everyone to the fact that her brains were remarkably pink — “you can see them work.” But best of all was the optimist of all optimists, the Patchwork Girl herself, who adopted the name Scraps, since she was sewn together from remnants like a mad quilt, and never tired of admiring her own beauty and cleverness. “I hate dignity,” Scraps liked to say. And giving yourself over to a discordant, undignified mess of landscapes and personalities is a large part of what reading the Oz books is all about.
During their journey to round up the ingredients for a restorative spell, Ojo and his companions met still more outrageous (and generally non-threatening) characters: the Shaggy Man, who could rely on the kindness of strangers as a result of a Love Magnet that he carried around in his shaggy pocket, and the Woozy, a cubical devourer of honeybees who, when provoked, emitted fire from his eyes. And the giant porcupine, and the magically animated Jack Pumpkinhead, and the wild Tottenhots (not to be confused with the equally wild Hottentots) — new characters springing up alive on every page until all the roads (whichever roads they happened to be) eventually led everyone home to Oz. To Oz, the Emerald City, presided over by the infinitely good young Ozma (best friend of Dorothy), and the less good but always improving Wizard, who began in the initial volumes as a stage-savvy trickster until Ozma and Glinda taught him some real magic. And as if the brightly written camaraderie wasn’t enough, the pages were filled with John R. Neill’s marvelous full-color plates and marginal illustrations, which always struck me as more evocative than those of Oz’s first, most famous illustrator, W. W. Denslow, whose figures felt too plump, soft, and cozy.
It’s hard to describe how some books lift us up and won’t let go, but The Patchwork Girl of Oz did just that. And while the book quickly established a place in my imagination more enduring than the comparatively less interesting Judy Garland film, it also held a deeply personal attraction. In fact, the most compelling line of prose in my Christmas book that year wasn’t written by L. Frank Baum but rather by my mother, on the Dedication page in her round, heavily curlicued, almost schoolgirl-like penmanship:
For my son, Scott,
one of the books my mother read to me when I was your age,
Now you can read it too,
For me, the most significant aspect of every Oz book I ever read as a child — or later reread to my son several decades later — was never simply the stories and characters they conveyed. Rather, they resounded with visions of my mother’s childhood in San Francisco, a landscape as far away and interesting to my youthful imagination as the color-coordinated kingdoms of the Winkies, Quadlings, Gillikins, and Munchkins.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I was never interested in the tales my parents told of their lives before I was born; the fact that I wasn’t in those tales instantly invalidated them. But now that they are both dead — along with most of the people who knew them as children — I often find myself trying to extrapolate their young lives out of the thin residue of facts, photographs, mementos, and imperfectly recalled anecdotes they left behind. My mother’s life is especially troubling, mainly because she died so young and unhappily.
Before she left for Nursing College at 18, my mother lived with my grandmother in a walk-up studio apartment on California Avenue. They shared a Murphy day bed that could, during the day, be lifted up and secreted behind a mirrored wall; there was a small, separate kitchen with a wooden table just big enough for two people, a grated metal safety door out front, and a common hallway with three steep flights of stairs, decorated with violet-colored, floral-patterned velour wallpaper. Before and after my brother was born (I would have been about three years old), my grandmother often took me by bus from our home in South San Francisco to stay in her downtown apartment, where I saw myself filling the role of my displaced mother. During the day, I “played” alone on the stiff, bristly hall carpet with whatever plastic figures and comics we picked up from Woolworth’s, often being admonished to “keep it down,” since my grandmother’s sister who lived downstairs, Great Aunt Alice, “didn’t like children.”
The high point of each day was the afternoon when I came inside to watch Popeye cartoons on a small black-and-white television, a show that Grandma considered a bad influence because one of its subsidiary characters, Wimpy, was always welching on debts. “I’ll gladly pay you Tuueeesday,” Grandma mimicked, seeming to have no idea that Wimpy was supposed to be funny, and that even an impressionable three-year-old wouldn’t actually want to be him. By contrast, Grandma’s favorite show was The Untouchables, which she let me watch while we ate our dinners on fold-out aluminum TV trays. This grim show featured triangular-shaped men in dark striped suits marching through jaggedly shadowed alleyways with tommy-guns and didn’t make any sense at all.
With the exception of the Murphy bed, all of Grandma’s furniture was uncomfortable, and the knick-knack shelves displayed dust-stained porcelain plates and figurines that Grandma referred to as “antiques.” I was always worried that I might leave a mark on them, or break them. Which, as I recall, I often did.
In the mornings, I woke to find my grandmother in the kitchen in her blue housecoat, warming her bare, blue-veined feet and knees at the stove, toasting bread in the oven, and smoking cigarettes. Like my mother, she preferred menthols, usually Salems.
Most of my mother’s own memories of childhood sound (in retrospect) like chapters in a memoir of clinical depression:
Every afternoon during the summer, Mom would give me 50 cents and I would walk downtown, buy lunch and an ice cream, and go to a double feature. Once, I stuck a marble up my nose and Mom had to call the ambulance and everybody came out to watch me get taken to the hospital with a marble in my nose. Another time, your great Uncle Ralph came for dinner and stayed three years. We called him the “man who came to dinner” because that’s exactly what happened in the movie. He was always drinking whatever alcohol we had but you never saw him buy his own bottle. But my favorite memories were when my mom and I read together, especially the Oz books. Every birthday and Christmas, she gave me a new Oz book, and we read them together before I went to bed.
On several occasions, when we were alone in Grandma’s apartment, I helped my mother climb a footstool to access a crawlspace over the Murphy bed, a cobwebby, bare-beamed space filled with battered, water-stained cardboard boxes. “Here’s one I loved,” she said, handing down a faded, jacketless, green-boarded hardcover. “Freckles, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Or look, here’s Huckleberry Finn. And one of the Oz books I mentioned. We read them all; even the ones by Ruth Plumly Thompson, which were actually pretty good.” Then, as if proving a legal case, my mother would fondly open one of the dried-out old books with a crackle of loose bindings and show me where she had printed her name as a four- or five-year-old. “Your grandma and I always had a wonderful time reading these books, and when you get older, we can read them together, too.”
Today it is hard for me to imagine Grandma reading the Oz books out loud to her daughter. In fact, while I felt much affection for my grandmother, almost everything about her seems slightly frightening in retrospect.
She drank and smoked a lot; she could be quite cruel, especially to my brother, whom she often made cry by calling him “a little baby” (which, at the time, he was). And she seemed to prefer me, for no reason I can recall except that I was the oldest, and perhaps looked and behaved more like my mother. She made scenes in restaurants, shouting out in a stage whisper — “We’re putting this place on our shit list!” — in response to what she considered poor service (usually it meant they served weak cocktails). And I recall her speaking loudly on the bus about the “niggers and spics” around us, which made me feel deeply embarrassed, even though at the time I had no idea what the words meant.
My father often laughed about the first time he went to Grandma’s house for dinner and she spent the evening telling stories about her abortions. After she retired, she bought one of the newly ticky-tacky Doelger homes in Daly City, where her closet was packed with elaborately packaged gift boxes of rose- and lemon-scented soaps and Chanel No. 5 that I suspect she stole from her job at the perfume counter of Macy’s in Union Square. After decades in storage, a patina of dust had turned their unbroken plastic wrappers brown and sticky, a quality derived, perhaps, from Grandma’s constant smoking.
I also recall that Grandma was born in San Francisco, along with seven brothers and sisters, from Irish and Welsh parents. My father often referred to Grandma’s family as the Jukes and the Kallikaks, since they seemed genetically predisposed to madness and alcohol. Several of them died of strokes (like Grandma) or cancer (like my mother). And the only member of the family that anybody seemed to love was my Great Uncle Have, a tall, lantern-faced man who lived in the Mission District with his beloved Aunt Doris, a thin, childless woman nobody liked who sat in a wheelchair and constantly criticized him for being too stupid to follow orders. When Uncle Have died, Aunt Doris sent my mother a brown-wrapper parcel containing the only valuable items she possessed — her wedding and engagement rings. Then she took her life with a handful of sleeping pills.
I never really thought of my mother and her mother as “feminine” personalities (whatever that means). They liked to drink in bars and laugh and talk and make fun of other people, especially men. They seemed unashamed and open in their relationships — my grandmother was rumored to have lived with several men over the years, and may or may not have been married to two of them. After my parents divorced, strange and unusual men often appeared and disappeared in my mother’s life — one of whom, a red-haired biker named Bill, took her purse and our 8mm film projector when he left. Neither Mom nor Grandma were particularly good cooks, and we often ate at restaurants or had food delivered. And while there was a brief period when my mother sewed shirts from patterns for my brother and me, and knitted tight, uncomfortable sweaters, I don’t recall either of them being very “domestic.” Most of my mother’s stories about good times with her mother concerned drinking, going to movies, and making fun of men, such as Uncle Ralph, or “that bastard father of mine,” a man named W. H. Mulhall who lived in a house about a mile from my mother and never spoke to her for the last 30 years of his life.
A few years ago, my father found a box of my mother’s papers, and when I went through the old photos and yellowing report cards, I discovered a small black-and-white postcard with scalloped edges depicting a large outdoor swimming pool with the name of a summer camp stamped on it. And, in hard block letters, the following words in my mother’s most immature handwriting:
I’m having fun Mom but
I MISS YOU VERY MUCH!
It struck me (and still strikes me) with a weird dissonance, since I can’t imagine any child missing my grandmother — a small, snappish, gray-haired woman who spent most of her time in the kitchen warming her blue, twisted feet at the oven door.
Yet all of my mother’s most significant memories — from VE Day to the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge — took place in a world that only seemed to include her mother. “Your grandma and I,” most stories began. Or: “When I was a little girl and your grandma came home from work, we would fix ourselves hot toddies and take them up to the roof and look down at the city lights.” Occasionally, there might be the light-comic addition of her cousin Garth, or one of the male “jerks” who lived with them, but the only significant presence in my mother’s life was Grandma. And in my imagination, even as a very young child, their life together was intimately bound up in the fabulous landscapes of Oz.
Looking back, they led an unusually “female-focused” life. Two women in a studio apartment, going out to dinners in Chinatown, or to double-feature afternoon movies and day-lit local bars. After I was born, they were often still drinking long after I went to bed, playing music on the phonograph and laughing loudly at some stupid thing that some stupid man had done before he moved out and was replaced by another, even stupider man. And occasionally, somewhere along the way, these two women spent a small part of every evening reading the Oz books.
Retrospectively, it seems appropriate that they enjoyed Oz, probably the most female-focused fantasy world ever imagined. In Oz, women rule most of the major precincts; they are the chief instigators, villains, and culprits in most of the plots; they solve most of the problems, and afterward forge long-term relationships with their motley friends and companions (scarecrows and lions and tin woodmen, et cetera), promoting a happy, beneficent society while keeping the world’s less beneficent societies (us) out. Men, on the other hand, are relatively helpless and bewildered, and most of their efforts lead to disaster. Uncle Henry loses Dorothy (and his house) to a tornado; a few books later, he loses Dorothy to a storm at sea; and still later, he loses her to an earthquake in San Francisco that swallows her up. (In fact, the only way Uncle Henry can stop losing Dorothy is by moving with her and Aunt Em to Oz at the conclusion of The Emerald City of Oz .) Cap’n Bill (like most of Baum’s male mariners) gets himself and his girl companion, Trot, lost at sea (The Scarecrow of Oz, 1915), and the redoubtable Wizard crashes the same balloon twice — once when he inadvertently lands in Oz, and later when he leaves and gets lost in the center of the earth (Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, 1908).
Women exert control over everything that matters. They lead most of the narrative expeditions — from Dorothy and Betsy Bobbin to Tip, who starts off as a boy protagonist in possibly the best book of the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), but who turns out to be the enchanted girl-princess, Ozma, and goes on to rule Baum’s kingdom for the next dozen-plus books, and in numerous sequels written by Ruth Plumly Thompson and others. And most of the fairyland’s significant political force is wielded by women, from the four witches who once ruled the four corners (including Glinda the Good) to the leaders of two military revolts — General Jinjur and Queen Ann of Oogaboo — and the obstreperous Princess Langwidere of Ev, who possessed 30 heads in her wardrobe (one for each day of the month), but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be interested in acquiring more.
Girls and women don’t rule through physical strength or firepower but through brains and charm. As General Jinjur proclaims before deposing the Scarecrow: “What man would oppose a girl, or dare to harm her? And there is not an ugly face in my entire army.” And the male response to Jinjur’s revolt is typical of most male actions in Oz: the combined Royal Army of Oz (which amounts to a single “Soldier with Green Whiskers” armed with a gun that isn’t loaded “for fear of accidents”) promptly surrenders. With occasional exceptions (such as the Nome King, who is more troll than man), the male figures in Baum’s universe are comical, foolish, innocent, complacent, monumentally passive (such as the Shaggy Man, who simply roams through fairy kingdoms accepting love from everybody), and often possess all these qualities at once. Meanwhile, no threat or villain can shake the girls out of their naturally polite composure. Whatever the circumstance, Dorothy and Betsy and Ozma are always “please” and “thank you” and “yes, Ma’am” and “no, Ma’am,” and, unlike the bad rulers of Oz, they never put on airs. When Princess Langwidere asks her visitor, in Ozma of Oz (1907), “Are you of royal blood?” Dorothy characteristically (and politely) replies: “Better than that, ma’am … I came from Kansas.”
What girls do best is band people, creatures, and sentient objects together and lead them toward a common goal, usually to save Oz (or some adjoining fairy kingdom) from evil forces. In the course of many books, Dorothy and her usually female replacements gather around them a wise H. M. (for “Highly Magnified) Woggle-Bug, T. E. (for “Thoroughly Educated), a wind-up robot named Tik-Tok, Polychrome the Rainbow’s daughter, several magically animated objects such as Jack Pumpkinhead (a jack-o-lantern attached to wooden arms and legs), a Sawhorse (who goes on to become Ozma’s “royal steed”), and something called a Gump, which is sewn together from a trophy head, a pair of sofas, and several large palm leaves for wings. Then there are the many talking beasts (the Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger) who are either native to Oz or have been transferred from our mundane world and can speak when they get there, such as Billina the hen, or the “sad-faced mule” Hank, or even Toto — who, it turns out late in the series, can speak just like all the other creatures, but didn’t bother until someone asked him to. In fact, so many characters appear in the series that a large part of each book involves catching up with them at some feast or celebration, which is why several Oz books lose energy in the concluding chapters.
It’s a genuinely utopian landscape where everyone has everything they need to be happy; and even when wars are fought, they are never over scarcity or land but only for eccentric, unbalanced reasons, such as Queen Ann’s temperamental reaction against cleaning her own room, or Ruggedo the Nome King’s insatiable greed:
The Metal Monarch was surly and cross because mortals had dug so much treasure out of the earth and kept it above ground, where all the power of Ruggedo and his nomes was unable to recover it. He hated not only the mortals but also the fairies who live upon the earth or above it, and instead of being content with the riches he still possessed he was unhappy because he did not own all the gold and jewels in the world.
Despite these occasional bursts of unreason (most of Baum’s villains sound like irritable children before a well-deserved time-out), the citizens of Oz uniformly enjoy warm homes, well-stocked larders, and satisfying professions, while being watched over by their various royal administrators, such as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, Glinda the Good, and the gender-bending Ozma. And then, of course, Oz maintains its status quo with a “wall” against reality — an uncrossable series of deserts labeled the Sandy Waste, the Deadly Desert, the Shifting Sands, and the Impassable Desert.
The picaresque plots produce more peripety than recognition. The motley travelers swerve across strange landscapes, encounter bizarre creatures, and eventually find their way back to a perfect utopian community that is either restored from recent damage (an invasion, a bad leader, a witch’s spell) or remains just as perfect as the last time they saw it. Baum’s characters never change (Scraps is always optimistic; Button Bright, the eternally lost little boy, is always getting lost; et cetera); they never realize anything new and significant about themselves or their world. And badness is a stain that can be easily cleansed from an innately pristine society. Even when “lessons” are learned, they are the sort of obvious truisms known by any “good” little boy or girl: “A Good Man is One who is Never Bad,” exclaims Rinkitink (in Rinkitink in Oz, 1916), reading from a scroll he carries on his travels. “Therefore, in order to be Good, you must avoid those Things which are Evil.” The only lesson to be learned in Oz is that good people (especially children) are born with all the essential wisdom they need. Wisdom (like society) never changes.
Oz will always be Oz, a plentiful land of stable truth, ruled by beneficent women. Which certainly doesn’t sound like the world any of us were born into (certainly not my mother and grandmother).
But that, of course, was probably the point.
Neither was Oz much like the world in which L. Frank Baum grew to adulthood. Raised in post–Civil War America, Baum pursued multifarious careers that repeatedly swooped and crashed like a series of the Wizard’s calamitous balloon rides. In a country rapidly filling up with the ghosts of dead children (as Rebecca Loncraine writes in her 2009 book The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, it was a time when “up to forty percent of all deaths were of children under age five”), the senior Baums lost their share; they even lost their home as a result of the 1873 banking crisis. And, in a nation of salesman, Baum spent his life booming and busting with one enterprise after another: he worked in his family’s dry goods store, traveled with a theatrical company under the name Louis F. Baum, started an amateur journal, The Stamp Collector, and wrote, produced, and directed plays for his own theatrical company, which went out of business after a fire. He developed a brand of axle oil, and eventually opened an ambitious department store in Aberdeen that featured extravagant displays of luxury items for customers to “Peruse, Ponder, Purchase.” As Loncraine writes:
The store was an Aladdin’s cave of ornate, multicolored, exuberant luxuries packed from floor to ceiling. It was a modest-looking wooden building from the outside, but inside, it was full to the brim, with what Baum saw as people’s unfulfilled desires. The Oriental goods, fancy items, and up-do-date fashions would enable the people of Aberdeen to live a refined lifestyle featuring sugar tongs, finger bowls, gold toothpicks, silverware, and ornate mirrors that would reflect back rooms cluttered with clear evidence that the West had been won, that this life out here on the Great Plains was working.
Unfortunately, while customers came from far and wide to “Ponder” and “Peruse,” they didn’t take the “Purchase” part seriously, and Baum’s Bazaar did what all of Baum’s enterprises did in the long run — it went broke.
Baum’s many failures as a theatrical entertainer and purveyor of luxury merchandise eventually led to his first significant success — as publisher of The Show Window, a monthly journal devoted to helping retail outlets display their wares in ways that were both aesthetically pleasing and commercially profitable. As Baum wrote in an early issue: “[T]he merchant who held out improbable and often impossible inducements drew the crowds, proving that the people […] prefer a glaring uncertainty to a homely and modest surety.” One of Baum’s earliest articles on the subject, for his paper the Pioneer, was entitled: “Beautiful Displays of Novelties which Rival in Attractiveness the Famed Museums of the World.” In 1900, Baum consolidated his ideas about display-to-delight window designs in a book with a title so long it didn’t leave much to the imagination: The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors: A Complete Manual of Window Trimming, Designed as an Educator in All the Details of the Art, According to the Best Accepted Methods, and Treating Fully Every Important Subject.
The book sold well, and helped Baum do what he always wanted to do: stay home, where he used the time left over from his various bankrupted enterprises to write stories for children. His first success, Mother Goose in Prose (1897), was illustrated by the great Maxfield Parrish, and he went on to produce, in collaboration with Densmore, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which turned out to be the vastest, most glittery and entrancing window-display ever contrived in the history of fantasy fiction.
Like another notable writer dismayed by the success of his most successful creation, Baum tried to push his Oz books off the Reichenbach Falls — even while the multitude of other novels he wrote under both his own name and multiple pseudonyms (many female) didn’t pay for his extravagant lifestyle (“Live and Spend” was his motto). At the conclusion of The Emerald City of Oz (1910), he moved Dorothy and her entire family permanently to fairyland, where they firmly slammed shut behind them the door to reality. Ozma contrived a spell to make Oz invisible, and Baum reported his receipt of a letter written on “a broad white feather from a stork’s wing” that read:
“You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.” — Dorothy Gale
But while Baum may have been finished with Oz, Oz was not finished with him. After losing more money on a series of radio plays and another touring company, he went bankrupt and lost his rights to the existing Oz books. And so it came time to go back for the money. The Patchwork Girl (1913) was the first new Oz book after the brief hiatus, and much of its charm resides in the sense of a fresh start: while many old characters return, they drop efficiently into Ojo’s quest (guided by the unfailingly optimistic Scraps) and don’t feel as tacked on as in previous books. In fact, the entire series picks up over its last decade, and while many of the late books didn’t sell as well as Baum had hoped, well, Baum always hoped for a lot.
Patchwork Girl also signaled Baum’s permanent move to Southern California; and this time, he took Oz with him. Buying a home in the tiny new village of Hollywood, he dubbed it Ozcot, insisted that his first granddaughter be named Ozma, and spent his last years in the garden, or delivering the latest news from the Emerald City to the community of children he addressed at the start of each volume, or developing the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, adopting many techniques from his French counterpart, Georges Méliès. As a result of his extravagant film investments, Baum produced several audacious (and clunky) special-effects-laden movies. The visuals were innovative, but the stories were not; and many members of the audience asked for their money back. Again, Baum spent too profligately — and lost it all. As Katharine M. Rogers reports in her 2002 book, L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, Baum’s son Frank claimed that his father “was a creative man with glorious ideas — but a poor businessman — enthusiastic — imaginative — but unreal and impractical — I always said it was a good thing that mother managed the family finances instead of Father.”
When Baum died, he tried to make Oz carry on without him — insisting that his beloved Maud remain in Ozcot after he died, as if he could close everybody off in a permanent window display forever untarnished by the messy world. In an age of calamitous economic unpredictability, Baum established permanence and beauty in his art and in the home he shared with his wife; and near the end it grew hard to tell those worlds apart. Much has been written about the influence of Baum’s wife and mother-in-law on his education: on the one hand, they taught him to trust in the intelligence and abilities of women, making him a long-time proponent of women’s rights; on the other hand, they encouraged him to explore the weird theosophical ramblings of Madame Blavatsky, especially her monumentally convoluted magnum-tedium of spiritual positivism, Isis Unveiled (1877).
But while Baum’s desire for stability drove many of his more progressive opinions, it brought out his ugly side as well. In possibly the least savory period of the author’s life, when he was terrified by reports of uprisings by the Lakota and the Sioux, he conceded that, while the native population had been severely mistreated, it was too late for rectification, and so concluded:
the best safety of the frontier settlers will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians … Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better they should die than live, the miserable wretches that they are.
For Baum, who spent his life trying to make the world more beautiful and glamorous than it possibly could be, there was no point trying to ameliorate the mistreatment of native people. The people (and with them, their mistreatment) could only be erased.
After all, you can’t build a perfect utopia (or window display) without breaking a few mannequins.
I fear the Oz books may not survive long beyond the centenary of L. Frank Baum’s death. And there’s at least a good chance that they probably shouldn’t.
I have now read Baum’s Oz books three times: once as a child, once as the father of a child, and finally as an increasingly cynical, often angry, but generally happy old man — who, I might add, is getting older and angrier every minute. And while I know this essay has gone on longer than it probably should, I hate to conclude on something of a bummer, but I’m afraid a bummer is what it’s going to be.
In our burning world, when so many of the illusions we once possessed about ourselves and our nation seem to be burning with it, I can’t see how anybody could believe in Oz ever again. Or even why they would want to.
In his best books, Baum imagined a perfect world in order to evade the vicissitudes of history; but because it was still possible to believe in that better world, readers could make the journey without feeling unrealistic or vain. Even adult readers could pretend such a world was possible, or at the very least a goal worth seeking. And yet, over the course of my lifetime, our faith in Oz has grown increasingly ironic — which is probably why so many of its cultural iterations have grown so remorselessly dark. I’m talking Zardoz dark. Or Tin Man dark. Or Geoff Ryman’s elegiac Was dark. Or even the clattery trash-can-littered alleyways of The Wiz dark. But most of all, the type of dark I’m talking about — that shadow of unease that trembles down deep in the spine of our belief in Oz — is exemplified by Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz, a conflation of the two best Oz novels, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.
Return to Oz is filled with the sort of floor-shifting unease that children can endure better than adults; it isn’t violent, or graphic, but rather psychologically and philosophically claustrophobic. It shuts viewers in with their illusions for two hours, and when it lets them out there aren’t any illusions left. I first saw Return to Oz with my 10-year-old son and his similarly aged cousins; they were rapt, but many of us adults were peeking around the corners of one another. There was something about the movie that just didn’t seem right. One of the other adults said something like, “Is this really supposed to be for children?” Before I watched the film again last week, I browsed through some of the customer reviews on Amazon and found similar reservations: “Scary.” “Is this really for children?” “It seems to have mental health issues.” And the one that most struck home: “I don’t know whose idea it was to show this movie to children, but they showed it to me when I was little, and I still have nightmares!”
While I like the movie — especially its willingness to animate many of Baum’s best creations, such as Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the Gump — I share many of these adult reservations. There’s plenty of pasted-on splendor and special effects and cleverly animated creatures and so forth, but in order to arrive at them you must first travel down a nightmarish road. In the opening scenes, we find Dorothy (the charmingly unaffected Fairuza Balk) living on her godawful Kansas farm — and everything lies dead and broken all around her. Aunt Em is exhausted from overwork. The house hasn’t recovered from the tornado. Uncle Henry is almost comatose with financial and philosophical worry. And the only thing that keeps Dorothy from succumbing to this awful landscape is her bright-hued memory of Oz and all its bejeweled splendor. But Dorothy has been left crippled by her experiences: she can’t live in our “real” world anymore without endlessly recounting the glories of fairyland — and who can blame her?
The solution to all this sadness comes in the form of Dr. Worley (played by the always tone-perfect Nicol Williamson) who hooks Dorothy up to a crude electro-shock device, as menacing as anything by Samuel Fuller, and promises to burn away all the lies Dorothy’s been telling herself about magical kingdoms and talking scarecrows, blah blah. “There’s no place like home,” Dr. Worley tells her in that scathing voice of contempt he clearly reserves for poor girls who trust in fairies, sturdily backed up by the Nurse Ratched–like Jean Marsh (more threatening than a whole fleet of broomstick-riding Margaret Hamiltons). Meanwhile, in the dark corridors around them, the voices of bedlam continue shrieking for mercy — young souls in cages awaiting “therapeutic cleansing.” It’s a bedlam most of us can’t leave behind even after Dorothy escapes back to Oz; for in Return, the reflections of our ugly world only grow larger and longer as Dorothy travels further from them.
In Wizard of Oz, we find our way back to the real world that wanted us all along, and the storm has passed. In Return to Oz, we find the ugly world lurking behind every Technicolor bush. And the real storm is still approaching.
When I was 12, Grandma suffered a series of strokes that sent her to live in a “convalescent hospital” in San Rafael. I remember dreading the church-like boredom of the monthly visits we made with our mother. Each time we arrived, after a long, hot, boring drive, we were greeted by the same general ugliness and hopelessness, walking through long fluorescent halls past elderly men and women locomoting clumsily on crutches and aluminum walkers, or ensconced in their motionless wheelchairs in various states of incapacity, hooked up to IV drips, chewing placidly at unpalatable-looking food on blue plastic serving dishes, and receiving doses of pills in small corrugated paper cups. There was always somebody crying distantly in one of the rooms — or several somebodies — until finally we reached Grandma’s room to find Grandma in her thin bed.
But she didn’t look like Grandma anymore at all. Her hair was thin; her arms and legs were stiff and partially paralyzed; she couldn’t shuffle two steps without our help; and she couldn’t speak — at least not any words that I could comprehend. Every utterance sounded like a series of short, hasty vowels, strung loosely together, just a sort of “Uh-uh-uh-uhhh” emerging from her toothless mouth. My mother seemed to understand Grandma from time to time. But my brother and I never did.
I dreaded those visits and selfishly, selfishly — with a selfishness that still resounds shamefully in my heart — hated every minute of them.
When my mother died of cancer, Grandma had been in the “convalescent hospital” for almost a decade, but she wasn’t doing any convalescing. Looking back now, it was really just a cold, anonymous facility for storing broken old people until they died. And without any family to watch out for her, I’m sure Grandma was placed deep in one of the least pleasant dead zones of that facility.
The last time I saw her, our father drove us out to tell her about the death of our mother. Again, selfishly, I didn’t even think about comforting Grandma. All I wanted was to get the “chore” over as soon as possible and go home. I was 19 years old, unhappy, incapable of dealing with most of the stuff my brother and I were dealing with, and all I wanted was to get that period of my life finished.
Our father guided us through the scene. And after he told Grandma about the death of her barely-40-year-old only child, she started crying. She babbled words I didn’t understand and she cried. It was the crying of a totally helpless person who had lost everything, and was now left in Dr. Worley’s world to be “treated” until the day she died. I may have reached out and touched her blue-veined, crippled hand, clenched up in an arthritic fist. But I’m not sure I even did that much. I just don’t recall.
It was the last time I saw my grandmother. Nor did I think much about her again until two years later, when I was living in Los Angeles and my father called me to tell me that she had died.
And that’s the feeling that emerged when I recently reread the Oz books.
I felt a sense of a shame. The shame that I have not always lived up to the needs of my dying world, my broken nation, and my fragile family. The shame I felt when I left my grandmother to die alone in that horrible hospital.
I am and always have been a great believer in reading as a non-productive, selfish, and use-valueless activity — at least when it’s done right. At the same time, I am lately haunted by the sense that my life in Oz — and perhaps many of our lives in Oz — has required me to take several steps too far across the Shifting Sands. And so, in order to compensate for this rising sense of dis-ease, I have begun to develop my own restorative fantasy scenario that takes place in an alternate dimension of space and time. It is totally escapist. It makes no logical sense. And it does nothing to ameliorate the mess we have made of our world, or my own individual failures. It just makes me feel good enough to put this essay to bed and get on to the next one.
The alternate universe fantasy scenario goes like this:
Through some magical device (a shimmering portal, an old wardrobe in an attic, ruby slippers, you name it), I travel back in time to visit my mother and Grandma in the years before I was born, perhaps during one of the times when my young adult mother was home for the holidays from Nursing School. I give them the good news first — that I have enjoyed a fortunate life and generally good health, and despite many obvious (to me) shortcomings, I probably wouldn’t change many things even if I could. But there is one thing I would change and it is this: I wish I had been more compassionate, understanding, and forgiving of them both.
And then, after taking a deep breath, I would give them the bad news.
“In the future,” I tell them, “everything that was bad about America in your day has gotten much, much worse. Television — especially television news — is all Oz, filled with phony magical splendor and happy dancers and political comebacks and serial melodramas where everybody finds happiness and then sadness and finally happiness again. Most political parties are Oz, promising how everything’s going to get better after the next election, even when it’s the same people getting re-elected over and over again. Most movies are Oz — lots of meaningless super-heroes and super-villains and Keanu Reeves killing scores of people in variously uninteresting ways. Oz Oz Oz — everywhere you look. The universities are Oz; all the crappy jobs and corporations are Oz; the literary establishment is Oz; the stock market and investment experts are Oz; the White House is Oz, and the DNC is Oz. And all any of them do all day is lie, lie, lie about how good everything is and how it’s going to keep getting better, trust them, just wait. And while there are still good things happening in our world (don’t get me wrong) and lots of people are starting to peek behind the Wizard’s curtains at all the engines blowing hot air into huge corporate-logoed multicolored party balloons, the world is burning and there may not be enough time to tear through the curtains and take back the throne. What I’m trying to say is that we may have believed the wrong things for too long to set them right again. We’ve been had, Mom and Grandma. And I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that.”
It would be the best apology I could muster for the shame I feel as an aging old man who probably believed in Oz at least one time too often.
Then I would take them to their favorite local bar and buy us a round of highballs.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).