Saturday, May 01, 2021

Finding Dorothy

There just isn't enough historical fiction around the origins of Oz. (That presents itself as fiction, anyway.) There's been a few attempts, but a couple years ago, we got Finding Dorothy, a book by Elizabeth Letts, who makes Maud Gage, later Maud Baum, the protagonist of her novel that switches between two time periods: her early life and meeting L. Frank Baum and the lead up to the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and taking an interest in the production of MGM's The Wizard of Oz.

The book is quite enjoyable. Letts' interpretation of Baum and his wife and mother-in-law vividly come to life on the page. She quite eagerly tells her story.

The big conceit of the story is that Maud has an idea of "taking care of Dorothy." The inspiration for Dorothy comes from a doll her niece Magdalena owns, which later becomes the name of an imaginary friend for the girl that she sends off with Frank and Maud as they head to Chicago. The implication is that Dorothy becomes the heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Later, when MGM is making their film, Maud tries to consult on the film, though her help isn't enlisted. She at first believes that Judy Garland isn't right for the role of Dorothy, but after talking with the young actress and singer, she takes an interest in protecting her.

There's quite some creative liberty taken with facts. I was a little concerned when Finding Oz by Evan Schwartz was listed as a reference as it was quite speculative without saying so, and no works by Michael Patrick Hearn were mentioned. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is depicted as Frank Baum's first big hit, but no mention of Father Goose: His Book or W.W. Denslow by name are made. It's odd when The Dreamer of Oz acknowledged the importance of Father Goose to the origins of Oz better. To borrow a phrase, "Father Goose walked so Oz could run," as Baum redirected his royalties from Father Goose to help fund the production of Oz. In Letts' book, the matter is re-framed as the Baums needing to scrape up $200.

The matter of the origin of Dorothy is addressed in the afterword, where Letts rejects the idea that Dorothy Gage was the namesake of Dorothy Gale as "Little Bun Rabbit" from Mother Goose in Prose predates the birth of the little girl. However, this is a case where the concept of the book requires one to accept that Letts' concept for the origin of Dorothy as a character is true. So while I might disagree (mainly "more than one inspiration could be the case"), my being a stickler needed to take a break this time.

A very apparent bending of details, which Letts owns up to in her afterword, is the filming schedule of the MGM film. More or less, Maud's visits to the set are depicted as occurring chronologically, her first being to identify the coat that Frank Morgan wore as Professor Marvel on the set with his wagon. (Maud is actually unsure if it's actually Frank's, and personally, I think the story was cooked up by the publicity department. There's a late story twist, but I won't spoil it.) The Kansas scenes were actually filmed last in the film shoot. Later, she visits the set as Munchkinland scenes are filmed, and even later visiting during the Tin Man's introduction scene, but it's known to anyone who's had to debunk the "hanging man" urban legend that the Tin Man's cottage scenes were filmed before Munchkinland.

However, if one can put aside their nitpicking over historical details that had to be fudged to tell the story, it's a good story. The relationship of Frank and Maud has been overdue for a lovely romantic retelling, and getting more eyes on the origins of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn't a bad thing at all. So, Finding Dorothy is recommended, as long as you remember it's a well-done piece of historical fiction.

By the way, while I enjoyed the book, I remembered a clip from the Ripley's Believe it or Not! radio program in which Maud appeared to talk about the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, giving a little nod to "the motion picture." Hungry Tiger Press posted it online for all to enjoy, so if you haven't heard it yet, or haven't heard it in awhile, it's still up there.

1 comment:

AMWise said...

Have you read Was by Geoff Ryman? That book has a similar juxtaposition of a troubled girl who possibly inspires Dorothy and Judy Garland during the filming of Oz. Both books are intelligent and enjoyable to read, but like a lot of historical fiction (to me, at least), they don't resonate as deeply with the history they're inspired by and fall a little flat. I really liked how Letts created a Maud who was so moved by Baum's talent and believed in it so deeply, but I kind of wanted her to be a stronger character and not just be a supportive wife. Anyway, I really enjoyed your review. Thanks!