When I was a little girl I didn’t know this book had existed long before the Judy Garland movie came into being. Later on I learned that L Frank Baum wrote fourteen Land of Oz books, but only recently did I read the first of the series. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie or read this novel I tell the ending, plus major plot twists.)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, has sold over three million copies, but I wonder if it has many fans in Kansas, for the author portrayed it as such a dismal place it seemed odd that Dorothy was so interested in returning there. Baum and his family lived in the Dakota Territory during the drought years of 1888 through 1891, and he apparently based his main character’s home on what he’d experienced in another part of the country when there wasn’t enough rain.
Dorothy was a girl who lived with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em on the gray Kansas prairie. The plowed fields were sun-baked and gray, the grass was dry and gray, and the one-room farm house was weather-beaten and gray. Even Dorothy’s relatives were gaunt and gray.
Uncle Henry worked from early morning until nighttime and didn’t know what joy was. Whenever Aunt Em heard Dorothy laugh it would startle her, for she’d stopped being cheerful soon after marrying and coming to live on the prairie. Dorothy had a playful little dog named Toto, and he kept the girl from becoming as gray and unhappy as everyone else.
One day Uncle Henry called out that a cyclone was coming, and while he ran to look after the stock Aunt Em ordered Dorothy into the storm cellar. But Toto became frightened and hid under a bed, and Dorothy went to rescue her dog before following her aunt to safety. Before she could get to the cellar’s trap door high winds whirled the house around and slowly began to lift it into the air.
The house rose higher and higher and began to sway back and forth. This went on for hours and Dorothy grew weary, so she went to her bed, fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the cyclone set the house down in the middle of a beautiful green meadow.
Dorothy stood in the open doorway and saw a group of short, oddly-dressed people coming towards her. A woman – who turned out to be the Witch of the North – bowed, welcomed her to the land of the Munchkins, and thanked her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East by having her house land on top of her. And, sure enough, two feet shod in silver shoes could be seen sticking out from beneath the corner of the building.
She was told that Oz had had four witches. Two were good and two were wicked, and since Dorothy had just killed one of the bad ones there was now only one wicked witch remaining. Dorothy said she needed to return to Kansas, and was advised to travel along a yellow brick road to the City of Emeralds and then go to see the Great Wizard. The Witch of the North could not travel with her, but kissed her on the forehead, which left a mark that would give her protection. Since the deceased witch had turned to dust Dorothy was given her silver shoes, and was told they were charmed, though no one knew what the charm was.
Dorothy’s regular shoes were nearly worn out so she put on the silver ones, and then she and Toto began walking to the City of Emeralds. Along the way she met up with three companions who also decided to travel to see the Wizard and ask for his help.
First she met up with a Scarecrow who wanted brains, but whenever Dorothy and her friends found themselves in danger most of the practical suggestions came from Scarecrow, so he seemed to be doing pretty well with a head filled with straw.
The second companion was a Tin Woodman who wanted a heart. He’d had one back when he was a flesh-and-blood human, before the Wicked Witch of the East worked an enchantment on him. (The Witch had been paid two sheep and a cow to prevent the Woodman from marrying the Munchkin he loved.)
The third companion was a Cowardly Lion who wanted courage, though he tended to be brave during times of danger, even after admitting he was frightened.
After many adventures Dorothy and her companions arrived at the City of Emeralds, and after a night’s rest Dorothy received a private audience with the Great Oz, a/k/a the Wizard, who appeared to her as a giant head. When she requested to be sent back to Kansas she was told she must first go to the land of the Winkies and kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Since the girl had never willingly killed anyone she began to weep, and felt there was no hope of her returning to her family.
The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion all received private audiences with the Wizard, who appeared to each of them in a different form. All asked for what they wanted, and all received the same answer – until the Wicked Witch of the West was killed no requests would be granted. And so the group set off on a witch hunt.
The Wicked Witch saw the group coming and tried to kill them with wolves, followed by crows, then bees, and lastly enslaved Winkies, but Dorothy’s friends were able to defeat all attackers. As a last resort the Wicked Witch decided to send out the dreaded Winged Monkeys. Anyone who owned a charmed Golden Cap could give the Winged Monkeys three commands which they had to obey, and the Witch had already used up two of her commands. This was a witch who really hated unexpected visitors.
Fortunately Winged Monkeys know you don’t mess with a girl who has the protective mark of the good Witch of the North on her forehead, so after many days of imprisonment Dorothy was able to accidently kill the last of Oz’s Wicked Witches. As she and her companions got ready to return to see the Great Wizard Dorothy found the Golden Cap in the cupboard, thought it was pretty, and decided to wear it. The cap turned out to be a good fashion accessory to take with her.
With help from the Winged Monkeys the companions safely arrived back at the City of Emeralds, but – alas – the Great Wizard turned out to be the Great Humbug, with no special powers to grant requests. How would Dorothy ever get back to Kansas? One of the locals suggested she go and see Glinda, the good Witch of the South. Should any little girl have to deal with four witches in one short book? If a cyclone carries her to Oz, then the answer is yes.
There were more adventures, more help from the Winged Monkeys, and one more encounter with a witch. A very kind and good witch who explained there is nothing like a pair of charmed silver shoes to get you and your dog back home again.
The book has a happy ending, with Dorothy’s normally-glum Aunt Em actually expressing emotion when her beloved niece returns to live in the brand new farmhouse built after the cyclone. And Dorothy exclaims that she was glad to be home again.
Since I’d seen the 1939 MGM musical I kept comparing L. Frank Baum’s original story to the Hollywood version and found the book to be of average interest. When the Wizard of Oz turned out to have no special powers I knew Dorothy would eventually get back to Kansas, and so found her last round of adventures a bit annoying. But all in all I found the book to be a quick read, for the adventures kept my interest enough to want to know what happened next.
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