I hadn’t planned on reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz any time soon. It was one of those “Maybe someday…” books to me. But when a great sale on an Audible version read by Anne Hathaway came through some time ago, I went ahead and bought it. And last month when I had several days between the end of my last audiobook and the availability of my next Audible credit at the beginning of the month and looked for a short book to fill the time, this seemed like a perfect choice.
The story is so well-known, I don’t think I need to go over the plot at all, but just in case someone is unfamiliar with it, the main character is Dorothy Gale, a little girl who lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas. Everything is pretty grey and cheerless, except Dorothy’s little dog, Toto. When a cyclone heads toward their house, Dorothy doesn’t quite make it to the storm cellar before the house is whisked away and ends up in the land of the Munchkins, right on top of the wicked witch of the East, for which the Munchkins are very grateful. Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas, but they don’t know how to help her: they can only advise that she go to see the great wizard, Oz, in the Emerald City. So she follows the yellow brick road that direction and along the way meets a Scarecrow who wishes he had brains, a Tin Woodman who wishes he had a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who wishes he had courage. They all decide to join her to see if Oz can help them. But Oz doesn’t quite respond the way they want, sending them on a mission to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. And eventually they find the wizard isn’t who they thought he was at all.
Of course, the book has its differences from the well-known movie. We only see 3 Munchkins rather than a townful, there is no “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” line, the shoes Dorothy is given from the dead witch are silver rather than ruby (probably due to the effect of which would look best in Technicolor). I enjoyed getting more back story of the characters, especially the Tin Woodman and how he came to be tin when he was originally human. The winged monkeys aren’t inherently evil – they’re mischievous, but they prove helpful in the end. There is an elephant-sized spider, a little town made of china people and buildings, and a race of people called Hammerheads who can shoot their necks out and butt people off the hill they’re guarding. Those are all interesting in themselves, but since they come between Dorothy’s leaving Oz (which is the end of the movie version) and her finally getting back home, they seem a little anticlimactic.
The book was written in 1899 and is considered the first American fairy tale. In the introduction, Baum says he wrote it just for the pleasure of children. He felt that “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” I would say there is still plenty of “disagreeable incident” in the story, with some of the trials the troop has to undergo, but they are not of the “horrible and blood-curdling” variety he feels are “devised by their authors to point to a fearsome moral to each tale.” I don’t think morals and stories are antithetical, but I agree it’s fine to have a story just for fun. And though Baum wasn’t necessarily trying to dispense morality, I think an observant reader would glean good traits from the good characters (their kindness, thoughtfulness, bravery, hard work, persistence, etc.).
I found it interesting that in the book, the idea that “There’s no place like home” came from Dorothy herself: it wasn’t something she had to be told by Glinda.
The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”
“That is because you have no brains” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
When my children were very little, I had trouble with the idea of a “good witch” in the story, so I didn’t let them see the film for a long while. But I eventually came to terms with the idea that fairy tale witches are a completely different thing from real-life ones.
Apparently Baum did not want to write sequels, but the interest and demand was so great that he wrote thirteen of them.
I’m so glad I gave it a go. Anne Hathaway did a marvelous job narrating. I agree with C. S. Lewis’s quote to the effect that a good children’s book should be enjoyable by adults as well. It would be hard to say whether I like the book or the film better. I like them both. They each have their charms.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)