Sunday, March 02, 2014

Finding Oz ... I think...

So, when I wrote my blog about L. Frank Baum biographies after finishing To Please A Child sometime back, I got comments pointing out Baum biographies I missed. (Which wasn't the point of the blog, but whatever...) Among them was Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan Schwartz. Well, a friend pointed out that it was available on PaperbackSwap (a great site, check it out), so I got a copy.

To be clear, I got an uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, which seems is not quite the same as the finished book. So if I refer to any points not present in the final market edition, that is why.

As the full title suggests, the book focuses on the writing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and some especial interest is given to the famous movie adaption. The book came out in 2009, the 70th anniversary of the MGM film, so this connection seems rather clear to appeal to readers who might not have read Baum's book.

I'd previously written off Finding Oz based on some reviews focusing on the speculation Schwartz indulges in. I'll get to that soon, but I will say that I was quite impressed with how Schwartz made clear the times that Baum lived in and the opinions that were prevalent in the day. Too often biographies just tell about the life of the person they are focusing on and any now-unpopular opinions they might have had seem ugly. (So, yes, he does do a very good job writing about those editorials in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. You know what I mean.)

Also welcome was focus on the lives of Maud and Matilda Gage. Schwartz points out nicely their effect on Baum's life, but overstates it a bit. When he gets to Matilda's death, he claims that "Glinda" was derived from "Good Witch Matilda," a connection I wondered at. That "Good Witch Matilda" was how Baum thought of Matilda of at all is pure speculation, and further speculation that this is where he got Glinda's name from is going a bit much.

The same speculation is all over the book. This account—like The Dreamer of Oz TV film—runs with the idea that Baum got the inspiration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from his life experiences, religious and philosophical beliefs and some facts that he might have known. Speculation is welcome, but when it is presented as fact, then we have a problem.

Some speculation is a bit much. Schwartz writes that Toto represents certain Theosophical ideals and Baum derived his "unusual" name from that. However, Toto actually was a common name for dogs at the time, and it's far more likely that Baum was painting a bit of familiarity to Dorothy's life in Kansas: if a child didn't live on a farm, they could relate to playing with a pet.

Even more incredulous is Schwartz retelling the "Affair of the Bismarcks," a Baum family story in which Baum bought filled doughnuts, despite Maud's decree that she was responsible for meals, and she insisted that he eat them, even when he tried to dispose of them. Schwartz tries to connect this to the crullers Aunt Em gives to Dorothy and the farmhands in MGM's The Wizard of Oz, even suggesting that they're going bad and Aunt Em needs to get rid of them quickly. Schwartz misses that Aunt Em clearly says in the movie, "Just fried!"

While I found the historical background around Baum's editorials about the Sioux welcome, Schwartz tries to say that Baum realized the error of his statements, and that it is evident in Wonderful Wizard. While I'd love to believe that Baum didn't hold this belief as closely as some of his critics make out, it is all speculation, 90 years after the subject's death.

Most annoying is that Schwartz focuses on one of Baum's works. Baum had 53 published novels to his name (not counting lost manuscripts or books that are assumed to be ghostwritten by others), several collections of short stories and many uncollected shorts as well, as well as poetry. Why is this one book made out to be Baum's magnum opus just because it is his most famous? And if it was such a major work for Baum, why did he later consider Sky Island and The Scarecrow of Oz his best works? As such, after spending so many chapters on Baum's life and the supposed creation of Wonderful Wizard, Schwartz summarizes the last 19 years of Baum's life in a matter of pages.

Finding Oz contains some great research, but the speculation is a bit too rampant.

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