Tuesday, August 18, 2009

John Dough & The Cherub

L. Frank Baum's 1906 fantasy novel was Reilly & Britton's major children's book of the year. While John Dough & The Cherub was far from Baum's best effort, it was not his worst.

The book opened with a chapter that told of how someone received a mysterious visitor who gave them something that served as a catalyst for the rest of the story. Usually when this happens, the person who got the catalyst is the hero of the story, but it was not the case with Baum. Madame Tina Grogande, who sells her husband's baked goods, is visited by Ali Dubh, who has her protect a vial containing the Great Elixir of Vitality. In return, he gives her a vial containing a cure for her rheumatism. After he leaves, it is revealed that she is color-blind and cannot tell the difference between the vials. She accidentally uses the Elixir of Vitality for her rheumatism, which it does cure.

Baum played with rheumatism cures in his books a few times. In The Glass Dog, one of Baum's American Fairy Tales, the titular item is made by a glass-blower in return for a magic cure-all, which he wanted for his rheumatism, but instead uses to cure a rich woman, hoping she will marry him. And later, in Queen Zixi of Ix, the Magic Cloak was given by a shepherd to Dame Dingle for a rheumatism medicine, which "has made the pain considerably worse. So today I threw the bottle into the river."

The next morning, to celebrate the Fourth of July, Jules Grogande, the baker, decides to make a life-sized gingerbread man, fully featured like an actual human being. In doing so, he mixes in the rest of the Elixir, which was poured into a bowl of water that was left out overnight. To his astonishment, after the gingerbread man, who he names "John Dough," is fully baked, it comes to life, grabs a giant candy cane and the baker's hat (John R. Neill's illustrations show a top hat), and leaves the store.

John is quickly discovered by humanity and he knows right away that he isn't like them. Boys in the street set off fireworks near him, steal bits of his candy cane, and a woman tells him to come inside so she can slice him up.

And in that scene with the housewife, Baum introduces John's plight: most people believe that just because he is made of gingerbread, he has no right to be alive. Immediately, John feels cast out from society and can't stay anywhere where people think of possibly eating him.

John returns to the baker's shop, only to overhear Ali Dubh express his rage at Madame Tina's mistake and ask of John Dough's whereabouts, so he may eat John and get what he can of the Elixir, so he may live forever, or at least, an unnaturally long life.

John flees the shop again, and runs into men setting off a Fourth of July fireworks display. He is asked to hold a rocket, but doesn't let go in time, and is carried off with it. However, the rocket was only made for flight, so it doesn't explode, but carries John to the Isle of Phreex, another place that Baum cleverly named.

Phreex is ruled by a little boy called the kinglet, who has a lady executioner who can never seem to do an actual execution, a group of men called the Brotherhood of Failings ("every king must have his failings"), and the island is also populated with people who have weird quirks, strange animals, live vegetables, and inventors who are either useless (like one who has made so many diamonds, they are now worthless), or their inventions don't work.

But the most important person John meets in Phreex is Chick the Cherub, a child raised in an incubator. While Baum had used artifical and metal people in his stories before (though his most famous, Tik-Tok, would not debut until the next year), Chick could be seen as an artificially bred human. Baum touches on the subject of gender identity by never saying if Chick is a boy or girl, only calling the Cherub, "the child," or sometimes even "it." It is hard to determine if Chick is one or the other, as everything that Chick says or does is not gender-specific. This creates a character that all readers can relate to, as Chick is a friendly, bold, and brave person.

John is quickly no longer the latest arrival to Phreex, as Ali Dubh appears, having bought a couple of magic transportation powders from a witch he met in America. (One of the few magic-workers outside of a fairyland Baum had in his works.) Chick, who has become John's friend and protector, hurries John to an airship made by an inventor named Imar. They escape Ali Dubh and stop at another island.

This island's most prominent feature is a golden palace called the Palace of Romance. The only inhabitants of the Palace are many traditional Lords and Ladies who feast and celebrate every day. (I wonder how this would be possible. Where does the food come from? Don't these people work for basic needs? Or is there a more sinister side to the island we never heard of?) They have a law that prevents this from becoming a permanent home for John and Chick, though: any strangers who arrive must tell every story they know, then they will be sent to drown in the ocean. John and Chick decide to wait until night to find the flying machine, until they can, Chick pulls a Scheherazade and tries to tell a never-ending story (... hey!) about a Silver Pig. Finally, one night, they find the way back to the airship and take off again.

This time, the airship breaks down and Chick and John manage to land right by another island. While Chick is looking for food, John is befriended by Pittypat the rabbit. Pittypat tells John (who can understand all languages, a virtue of the Elixir) about the inhabitants of the island. The main inhabitants are the Mifkets, little humanoid beings that are violent-natured. A little family lives on the island, consisting of a man, his wife, and their daughter Jacquelin, who the Mifkets call their Princess. An oddity who lives on the island is Para Bruin, a bear made of rubber.

Using great strength given him by the Elixir, John earns the respect of the Mifkets, but Ali Dubh appears, having used his last transportation powder. While Chick, the Princess, Pittypat, and Para Bruin try to keep John safe, eventually the Mifkets, who ally with Ali Dubh, catch him, and a renegade Mifket, Black Ooboo, eats the fingers from John's left hand, but he manages to escape before they can eat more of him.

Here, the story hits a high point: the Princess is revealed to be ill, and she's getting worse. Chick suggests that since John's missing the fingers on his left hand, he could feed Jacquelin the rest of it. John rejects the idea, hating to lose more of himself. Chick and Para Bruin in turn tell John that if the Princess dies, they won't be his friends any longer. John goes to contemplate this, and while he does, a bird steals and eats his coat-tails. John then realizes just how much surplus he has and how much he could sacrifice. The bird then rescues John from the Mifkets and John gives the Princess the rest of his hand, which cures her. (Did you expect such a strong theme of self-sacrifice in an L. Frank Baum fantasy?)

With the Mifkets more angry than ever, they try to attack Jacquelin's parents, who escape in a rowboat. Now Pittypat helps rescue John, Chick, and Jacquelin by going to the King of the Fairy Beavers, who, hearing of John's sacrifice, agrees to shelter them. With some help from Para Bruin, the three refugees make it to the Palace of the Fairy Beavers. Using a submarine, Jacquelin is returned to her parents.

Next, the King of the Fairy Beavers designs a plan to get John and Chick off the island. He cuts John into nine pieces, delivered to a high part of the island. There, John is restored with a magic cordial, and flamingos carry him, Chick, and Para Bruin away.

The next stop is almost without importance: an island of retired pirates (led by Sport, a creature made of sporting goods) who demand a ransom of three gems for the three companions. This removes three diamonds from John Dough that had been given to him in the Isle of Phreex, but that's it.

The flamingos drop John, Chick, and Para Bruin off on a larger island. They discover an abandoned palace on a wall dividing two countries. One country is full of tall buildings, the other with short buildings. Chick investigates, and finds the high country filled with extremely tall people, while the short one is filled with short, squat people. They both say their next king is prophesied to be neither flesh or blood, and Chick realizes that John Dough is the fulfillment of that prophecy.

The story then concludes promptly with John Dough as King of Hiland and Loland in the palace of Hilo, while Chick the Head Booleywag, and Para Bruin the Chief Counselor. The story closes with an extended way of saying "And they all lived happily ever after."

This is one case where I think the story could have been improved with less story. I've thought that if I ever adapted the story for a dramatic version (it was a presentation in Baum's short-lived Fairylogue and Radio-Plays), I would cut many things. Both the Palace of Romance and Pirate Island would get cut, and a lot of the drama on the Isle of Phreex. I would also have the Flamingos take Pittypat, who would have no friends left on Mifket Island, and Jacquelin and her parents could arrive on the shores of Hiland and Loland. (John R. Neill's take on Jacquelin's mother looks a lot like a Lolander, anyways.)

But even with those cuts and slight additions, the story would still very much be Baum's. And though he did overdo it, every bit of John Dough & the Cherub is filled with fantasy, adventure, and fun for all readers.


Oz RPG said...

I remember reading somewhere that there was a contest to determine whether Chick was male or female. Whoever made the most convincing argument one way or the other won. I don't recall the outcome of that contest, however.

Nathan said...

I always kind of thought that Jacquelin's story was incomplete. Yes, she made it to safety, but not back to civilization. Having her end up on Hi-Lo (or is that Lo-Hi?) would have made for a good ending, but Baum's writing in this book was so episodic that he might not have even remembered Jacquelin by the time he reached the end of the story. It's definitely a plot with its high and low points. The Mifket section, for instance, includes the main conflict in the story, but the action kind of stops and starts. And shouldn't we have heard SOMETHING about Hiland and Loland before the main characters arrive there?

I also thought it was weird that Para Bruin could only speak to John himself while on the Isle of Mifkets, but had no problem communicating with others after leaving.