Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wonder City of Oz

With the departure of Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee decided to turn to someone who had had 35 years of experience in Oz: illustrator John R. Neill. Neill had made up stories for his children, and had written a number of comic strips on his own. Anyways, he'd illustrated for Baum and Thompson, so surely he must have picked up on their style, right?

His first book was published in 1940: The Wonder City of Oz.

Let me warn you: if you thought Thompson's stories could get disjointed, you haven't seen ANYTHING yet!

We open in the New Jersey home of a 15 year old Jenny Jump, who spies Siko Pompous the leprechaun about to steal her pepper cheese. (Pepper cheese? Pepper jack cheese? Jenny and I must have something in common!) She catches him, and promises to let him have the cheese if he will make her a fairy. He makes her half a fairy. (And eats all her cheese!) One ear, one eye, eight fingers, and her ears are fairy. He refuses to do more so she won't get into trouble.

I'm assuming trouble is her middle name, because soon Jenny's fairy foot sends her flying high into the air, far away from her New Jersey home!

Meanwhile, in the Emerald City (which is the titular "Wonder City"), a celebration is being prepared for Ozma's birthday. Neill already begins to exhibit his new take on Oz. He dips into nonsense by having Jellia accidentally sew her mouth shut, and so she can still talk, Ozma enchants her so she can talk through her ear.

During a parade for the birthday, Jenny crash lands in Ozma's carriage. Introductions are made, and Jenny is made welcome. When Jenny spots a Munchkin boy who accidentally sends himself soaring through the air (don't ask), she uses her fairy foot to rescue him, and the boy, who calls himself Number Nine, promises to be her servant.

Jenny wants to stay in Oz, and Ozma welcomes her to do so, but when she expresses the desire to be a queen, she asks when the next election is. Ozma does not know what an election is, but decides, for the fun of it, they will have an Ozlection, and she and Jenny will run against each other.

Jenny spends the night with Number Nine and his family, where he is one of fourteen children. The next morning, the two head out together. Quickly, Jenny shows how their relationship will be. She threatens Number Nine (can I call him #9 for short? I'll do that) to accompany her to the ruins of a wicked magician's home that had exploded (and THAT is why Ozma banned unauthorized magic). Jenny goes through a turn-style she finds and discovers her clothes have changed somewhat. Discovering how to use this magic turn-style that turns styles, she and #9 take it to the Emerald City to set up a style shop!

You might think a magic clothing store would be a terrible idea, but somehow, Neill writes about it with enough enthusiasm and energy that it somehow works.

#9 is made to wear "whistlebreeches" by Jenny, as a reminder not to loaf, because when he stops working, the whistles whistles sharply and loudly.

Meanwhile, Ozma and her court decide, through a series of homophones, that the votes in the Ozlection will be counted by people depositing their right shoes.

And #9 is having no luck with the whistlebreeches, making too much noise. Scraps notices and chases #9 into Jenny's shop, accidentally running through the turn-style, which changes her classic patchwork dress into a boy's bathing suit. And there's a bit where the houses in the Emerald City fight...

Jellia gives Jenny her shoe as thanks for freeing her lips by completing the dress that Jellia had been working on. Jenny receives many more shoes, before #9 points out that people are leaving left shoes, which are invalid as votes.

The votes are to be dropped off at Jack Pumpkinhead's home, which is a decommissioned Ozoplane. It's not clear why Jack is living in the Emerald City instead of his pumpkin home in the Winkie Country. Maybe this is where he's begun to stay while visiting the Emerald City. But during the night, the Heelers, creatures who enjoy eating votes (or shoes?) sneak in, but Jenny and the unwitting Cowardly Lion manage to defeat them.

Quickly, #9 is befriended by a mysterious magical man who readers will quickly guess is the Wizard of Oz. He makes himself a pair of whistlebreeches, much to Jenny's anger. When #9 tells him that Jenny would be much nicer if she was younger, the Wizard gets Siko Pompus to make Jenny de-age to 11 years old, but in the process, she will lose her fairy powers.

Jenny notices herself getting smaller as she helps a red box-like man find a job. She then runs into Scraps, who, after a little fight, is willing to let bygones be bygones, and they visit Jack. But then Jenny accidentally sets off his Ozoplane home. (Those things are really touchy, aren't they?). The three wind up prisoners on a planet of some sort inhabited by chocolate soldiers who take them prisoner and intend to invade and conquer Oz.

Meanwhile, #9 is running the style shop alone, letting his family all get new clothes, and then the aid of a dragonette must be enlisted to rid the shop of two nomes intent on stealing the magic turn-style. Surprisingly, Sir Hokus of Pokes appears, which is odd, as we thought we'd seen the last of the bluff old knight in The Yellow Knight of Oz. But here he is, willing to give the dragonette a merry chase.

As the chocolate soldier's planet is cold (if it was too warm, they would melt), the guard guarding the prison freezes solid. Jenny manages to "eat" her way out of prison (the chocolate is bitter, and she couldn't stomach a lot, so she bites and spits). She is unable to rescue Jack and Scraps before the guards are changed, so she decides to head straight for the Ozoplane and get back to Oz to warn Ozma of the invasion.

Back in Oz, #9 has begun to worry about the lack of Jenny, and takes the Sawhorse to look for her, heading first for the Quadling Country, which proves to be a wise move, because it is there that Jenny crash lands the Ozoplane! They hurry back to the Emerald City, noting the chocolate soldiers are moving in. Finding that Ozma is visiting Glinda, Jenny does the only thing she can do: open the gates to the invaders. Except that the magic turn-style has been placed in the gates, so when the soldiers march through, they come out as tiny tin soldiers, who are then made the playthings of some local children.

#9 is sent to the palace to find the Wizard so he can rescue Scraps and Jack, but #9 doesn't know the Wizard, so when he sees him, he thinks he is just a crazy old man. (Neill's illustrations show him looking a little different as well, which doesn't help, either.) But the Wizard uses a tell-all scope to find them, and uses a golden ray to bring the two prisoners home. Shortly, the Wizard finally introduces himself to #9.

The Woggle-Bug finds the rules of the Ozlection must be amended and he suggests that all voters be weighed, and whoever has the most weight on their votes, wins. But when the weights are counted, they come up equal, until they realize Siko Pompus has not voted. He makes his vote... for Ozma.

Jenny is furious, and goes on a rampage, releasing tigers from tiger-lilies, bulls from bullrushes, lions from dandelions, and other such animals. She soon regrets her anger, but is knocked unconscious. The animals are rounded up by #9's father and General Jinjur, who are both farmers, and they take the animals home.

The Wizard finds Jenny and sees that she desperately needs her bad attributes removed, so he does so, and these take the form of a black wasp (bad temper), a green snake (envy), and a fat red toad (ambition?). When Jenny awakes in the palace, she finds a surprise: Ozma has decided to make her a duchess and Chief Stylist of Oz.

Jenny and #9 return to the shop where Siko Pompus awaits with some gifts for Jenny. An eyeglass with an ivory handle, a gold slipper, a pair of gloves with no thumbs, and a pair of ear-muffs. Trying these, Jenny discovers that they will restore her fairy powers while she uses them. She decides to be kinder to #9, only having the shop open half the day now, and bringing in his "Sister 6" to help, and the two begin their relationship over again as friends.

I hadn't heard very nice things about Neill's Oz books, so my expectations were low when I read The Wonder City of Oz. But there is an upside to the unevenness of Neill's first Oz book: an overenthusiastic editor rewrote and added much of the plot, including the ridiculous Ozlection and the Wizard performing what we'd identify today as a lobotomy on Jenny. (The Ozlection was likely thought of as 1940 was an election year, and perhaps the editor wanted to help children understand it better through the fantasy of Oz.) Apparently, Neill wasn't crazy about these changes. There are no illustrations of the Ozlection proceedings at all, and those that are there could easily have been for other purposes.

If this is completely true, even with Neill's silliness, the story as he wrote it takes on a different tone than what comes across in the finished book. Sadly, it is unclear as to why Jenny was letting the animals run wild in the Emerald City, but we would have seen her go from a contrary teenager to a young girl, a member of the nobility of Oz, who would manage to have a better control of her temper, with magic tools. Jenny even becomes a hero by saving Oz using her magic tool and her wits.

While Neill might not have been a masterful storyteller, knowing this about his books, I can't write Wonder City off as "bad." Look at the character development for Jenny, and the wonderful character of #9. Frankly, I like Jenny Jump. Thompson, in all her books, had failed to add any new child characters to Ozma's court, so it was refreshing to see one with a twist: unlike Dorothy, Betsy, and Trot, Jenny does not live in the palace, and she runs her own business.

So, Neill wasn't a completely poor choice to succeed Thompson, but his first book was hampered with silly one-note characters (I didn't mention them all) and an editor who was not working with the author's intentions. (Most of the nonsensical logic seems to be from those additions.) Neill would write three more Oz books, so let's see how he did there before passing final judgement.


Sam A M said...

Great, now I dislike Jenny Jump - the character and seeing her on the IWoOzC Forum - even more, and I didn't even know her then.

Sorry, but I say this sounded like a bad Oz story.

J. L. Bell said...

Though Thompson didn't add any children to Ozma's inner circle, she did leave Bob Up and Snip living in the Emerald City, both with jobs. In that respect, Jenny and Nine aren't the first young people we see becoming part of the ordinary Emerald City population, rather than the palace elite.

But usually arriving in the capital of Oz is the culmination of an adventure. In Wonder City, that's just the beginning. It's the first book to explore at length the lives of ordinary working Ozians. Jenny, of course, doesn't see herself as or act ordinary, and Nine quickly starts working at the palace. But they start out as citizens in a crowd.

Unfortunately, the book's many storytelling flaws mean that the it doesn't fulfill the potential of that approach. But I think it's a significant book in the series.