Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: FINDING OZ

Once upon a time I was cast in a production of THE WIZARD OF OZ and began doing some research not only into Oz, but into the man who created that world, L. Frank Baum. One of the books I read as part of my research was FINDING OZ.

The book is flows smoothly and is rather easy to read. The premise of the book is that many of the characters, events, and places in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ were inspired by people, events, and places from Baum’s own life. FINDING OZ attempts to illustrate just what all those people, events, and places were. The book begins with Baum’s familial background and his birth and follows his life until just after the major success of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.

Though the story moves along very smoothly and is filled with facts, as a biography the book isn’t very good. FINDING OZ is filled with suppositions. For instance, when discussing a time when Baum went to meet his future wife, Maud Gage, the author makes all kinds of suppositions from the probabilities of the things they would have worn, to how Baum would have arrived, to what songs were sung, to how long Baum spent at the house, etc. I realize these suppositions were included to keep the book smoothly flowing. However, they aren’t factual and I felt that they took away more than they added.

I also didn’t like how the author tried to find a real-life reason for all of the major events, places, and characters in Oz. As Baum clearly points out in his own introduction to THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, the story is supposed to be an American fairy tale. It’s not a parable or an allegory. We do know that there are certain things that did inspire Baum’s tale, for instance his niece Dorothy who died at an early age, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and Baum’s experiences selling china (the Dainty Chinaland chapter in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ all makes sense now). However, not everything in the novel was inspired by something else. Sometimes a story is just a story, and I often felt while reading FINDING OZ that the author forgot that.

The book also ends rather abruptly. It spends a great deal of time on Baum’s life leading up to the publication of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, but very little time on the events of his life after that. Baum wrote many other books and though none were as successful as the first Oz book, he was one of the most famous and successful authors of his time. He went back to the Oz books because the public demanded them. If people, places, and events in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ were so closely based upon real-life, were the people, places, and events of the sequels also based upon real things? The author never comes near that question and FINDING OZ basically ends after the success of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.

That’s not to say FINDING OZ is a terrible book because it’s not. The book is entertaining and is occasionally informative. For instance, the author makes it clear that Baum did not base THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ upon Populist politics of the day as several historians and theorists have suggested in the past. In fact, Baum was a staunch lifelong Republican. The book also gives a great deal of insight into Matilda Gage and her relationship with her son-in-law.

FINDING OZ was a mixed-bag for me. The structure flows as smooth as a novel, but the major faults of the book kept me from enjoying it as much as I have similar-themed works of non-fiction.

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