Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

by Evan I. Schwartz
Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Week    50   Biography
( Read aloud with my husband.)

This morning, on NPR, I was listening to an author talk about why Conan Doyle has remained a premier influence in mystery fiction throughout the century or so since he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. This same question, of course, can be asked about L. Frank Baum and the Wizard of Oz stories. The author Evan T. Schwartz was reading The Wizard of Oz to his 7-year-old daughter and enjoying her wide-eyed amazement at the magic of the story. He realized there might be a book in the details about how the classic got written. Finding Oz, a biography of sorts, is the result. I say “of sorts,” because there is a great deal of speculation involved in Schwartz’s narrative. One reviewer noted that Schwartz prefers “the conjectural to the concrete and never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Schwartz traces the restless life of L. Frank Baum from his childhood to the writing of the book. He “does a fine job of unearthing the origins of Oz, and of portraying Baum as very much a man of his times--the era of the vanishing frontier and the uneasy transition from Victorianism into modernity.” As the author says, Baum crossed paths with much of the national narrative during his life, and Schwartz feels that he filed away all those influences until they appeared in his novel. For instance, Baum’s mother-in-law was the radical feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. Many thought her to be a witch, but to Frank, she was a benevolent mother and a huge influence in his life. The family moved to Chicago just before the Chicago World’s Fair, and many people, including Schwartz, feel that the “White City” in Chicago became the Emerald City. Thomas A. Edison and P.T. Barnum, important personages of the time, may have been the influence for the Wizard.

L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum moved his family (wife Maud, and sons Robert, Harry, Kenneth, and Frank Jr.) many times trying to find a formula for making money that would provide for his family as well as satisfy his soul. He tried theatre, sales, retail, and journalism. His family moved from New York State, to territorial South Dakota, and finally to Chicago where he settled into a career as a journalist. It was in Chicago reporting on the World’s Fair that the stories he had been telling his children began to take form and his first book, Father Goose, His Book,was published. Other published stories followed until he completed his masterwork, The Wizard of Oz.

The actual story of the writing of the Wizard of Oz takes up only one chapter close to the end of the book. Schwartz develops all the influences so fully that you are always saying, “Of course. That seems logical.” All the time, however, you are wondering, “Is that really true or merely conjecture?” He feels that the Baum family was greatly influenced by a trendy religion called Theosophy, a religion that was an amalgamation of Buddhism and other eastern religions, and that the book may have been a result of that spiritual journey.

On another level, Finding Oz is fascinating journey through the years following the Civil War from the perspective of L. Frank Baum, who lived through those days and made the most of it. From the historical perspective, the book is a valuable read. We watched a documentary about the Chicago World’s Fair, Expo: Magic of the White City. We had seen it before, as we were reading another Chicago book about those times—The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. To readers new to the Chicago World’s Fair, these books would serve as great companion narratives, but be sure to watch the DVD, which we got from Netflix. It puts the whole scene into perspective.

My husband, Thell, has been a lifelong fan of the Wizard of Oz, and we have a set of about ten very ancient books. I asked him if he thought the Wizard of Oz would have remained classic children’s literature if not for the 1939 movie. He responded that he thought that the brilliance of the movie fixed itself into the American psyche, and thus we consider the books to be of the same classic mode. Like all good stories, there are many ways to interpret it and many ways to find meaning in it. We were regaled the other evening to the road show, Wicked, a brilliant speculation about the origins of the witches of Oz. There is something about that story!

Here is Evan Schwartz telling about his book on his book’s website:

A review of the book in the Washington Post:

An interview with Schwartz by "The Daily Ozmapolitan":

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