With Oz in the news these days, (not the doctor nor the Australian slang – just the new Disney), the connection I have with all things Oz reappears to bite my ankle.
There are over 70 Oz books. The first 14 by old L. (Lyman) Frank Baum, reverently called, ‘the canon,’ were oversized like physics textbooks. The remainders are by a variety of authors picking up on the Oz theme including Stephen King and Philip ‘Jose Farmer the science fiction writer. Baum’s daughter wrote the most, (19), his son and great grandson wrote some, even his illustrator, John R. Neil wrote three all of which were vastly animated including talking houses that ran about here and there.
There is a body called The Baum Trust that authorizes those they think stick closest to the tradition of the original. Then of course there are the movies, Broadway plays, video games and even a line of Oz comic books.
What the Oz books really were best at for me, was serving as metaphor. All the books have a real sense of community. Problems are faced and solved together. The wonderful wizard is often along. He has attained real magic but finds it seldom helps.
In The Lost Princess, he goes along with Dorothy to find Ozma who is missing. (Spoiler Alert: She has been stashed in a peach pit in an immense orchard). The as-always odd collection consisting of the animated like the scarecrow and the patchwork girl, the animal like the cowardly lion and the hungry tiger, (and of course Toto not to mention Dorothy and the wizard, have all been forced into an increasingly narrow route till suddenly they can go no further.
Ahead of them lie a vast series of sharp peaks called The Merry-Go-Round Mountains, like a perpetual motion machine, spinning madly in every direction. But behind them are the series of monsters and pitfalls which they have previously defeated. A lot like life.
As the scarecrow now has that new brain, (I seem to remember a large component of it was raisin bran), he decides the only thing to do is for him to fling himself into the mountains and trust that he will come out okay. If he can, he will yell back to the others how it is going. Since he is animated cotton, he may be immediately shredded but at least it will not be painful.
Before they can stop him, the scarecrow darts to the edge of the mountain-filled chasm and launches himself at the sharpest peaks. At once his straw-filled body is tossed from peak to peak. Though he is yelling something, no one can make out what he is saying. Finally he disappears from view and a silence descends.
The patchwork girl, who is an animated stuffed quilt with button eyes and a temper, immediately rushes to the cliff and is similarly bounced. As she has a permanently stitched smile, they cannot decide whether or not it hurts her and soon she is gone from their view.
Since it seems the only thing to do and due to the reassuring tone of the scarecrow’s yells, even though they could not make out his message, one by one the others go too, including the wizard (who, unlike the new movie, is entirely bald with Diefenbaker tangled eyebrows that seem to have a life of their own).
Dorothy is the last to go and she throws herself at the mountains with trepidation, only to find they are made of rubber, bounce her around like a ping pong ball and suddenly throw her off where she lands in a sunny meadow where all her friends are lying in the grass laughing from the great ride.
I told Judy Russell, that star of a Kingston actress/writer/bookseller/traveler, about this story when, struggling with breast cancer, she asked what I thought about death. This particular Oz story is a metaphor for how things like that work, I told her. We go forward bravely into the unknown, the trip of a lifetime. We are flung among the sharp peaks, from diagnosis through chemo and other treatments (depending on our bodies, what we’re made of), till suddenly the wild ride is over and we emerge into a meadow. There all our friends are waiting, smiling and laughing. The Elysian fields, the Greeks called them. But it is really just coming home.
Judy died not long after. But the last time I saw her, it was evident that the metaphor held. Mental bags packed, she was prepared to set out on that final great adventure.
Growing up with a prospector father and grandfather in isolated regions of Alaska, the survivalist nature of that life was not conducive to good parenting. Clear and present danger was a accurate description of my childhood. It was the Oz books that made me look beyond frightening circumstances; dragged down into abandoned mines, stuck into leaky skin boats on an icy arctic sea in a frozen environment, I determinedly lived in that enchanted fairy kingdom in my head as the horror unraveled that was my life.
I knew I’d be taken in and loved in Oz, being a child and knowing that the other tenants of the green crystal palace were such a motley crew: the Gump, the Wogglebug, Jack Pumpkinhead and the Shaggyman to name only a few. Baum was big on communities made up of outsiders.
Oz itself kept me safe in my head until I could make it on my own.