Monday, November 12, 2012

Our Landlady

During L. Frank Baum's time in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he ran a lavish store called Baum's Bazaar. Unfortunately, the store was too lavish to run for long and he had to close it. Not quite ready to quit Aberdeen, he started the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper.

Baum would editorialize about local and national news, but he had a fun way of treating some topics. In addition to poetry, he wrote a series of stories about Sairy Ann Bilkins, landlady of the cheapest boarding house in the United States, located in Aberdeen. She would discuss matters, sometimes relating odd stories. Her boarders—young Tom, the doctor, and the colonel (who she has a crush on)—offer commentary, usually over dinner, which the boarders occasionally find foreign objects in.

Baum is witty and humorous here, but admittedly, this book is greatly helped by Nancy Tystad Koupal's annotations and notes, helping us understand the appropriate context for it. This is not a fault of Baum, because he didn't write to have it read about 120 years later, but for his friends and neighbors at the time they were living in.

That being said though, readers fresh off the Oz books might be surprised by the Baum they find here. Instead of rollicking adventures, they get a plain country woman's view of her home and world. Baum does venture into fancy in a few strips, such as an underground ride and an idea of the future of Aberdeen, but one that really gets to Oz fans is an early one where Mrs. Bilkins tells about how the local farmers are dealing with hard times. She tells how one farmer makes his horses wear green goggles so he can trick them into thinking shavings are grass so they'll eat them, "but they ain't gittin' fat on it." This, of course, brings to mind how the Wizard makes the people of the Emerald City wear green spectacles in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Koupal notes how Baum's work for the Pioneer is actually very critical to understanding how his mind worked, noting that those who believe he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory are actually completely ignoring his entire work for the paper. This work reveals his actual political stances, which stand at odds with the Populism interpretation.

While Baum fans may get a chuckle from Mrs. Bilkins, Our Landlady is definitely more for those who want to know more about who L. Frank Baum was and what he believed. Those who simply want to enjoy a work of fiction might look to his other works.

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