Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Partying in a Utopian Fairyland: The Road to Oz

Oooh, Ozma is having a birthday party! Can Dorothy and her friends make it in time for the party?  Can they? CAN THEY?

It must be confessed from the outset that The Road to Oz does not have much of a plot. (You just read pretty much the entire thing.)  But, even plotless, The Road to Oz is one of the most critical books in the development of Oz, since here at last we see the nearly ultimate, persistent version of Oz: Oz as communist utopia.

With fairies!

No hint of the radical politics appears in the first half of the book, which focuses on Dorothy wandering through various magical lands, which with one exception seem considerably safer than those she’s encountered on previous journeys. The exception: the Scoodlers, who want to make Dorothy and the gang into soup. Yum! Dorothy picks up the usual assortment of friends along the way: the Shaggy Man, an otherwise nameless American hobo; Button-Bright, here a frighteningly stupid child, far from the resigned and practical wanderer we’ll encounter in later books; and Polychrome, a dancing fairy who has fallen from a rainbow. If none except Polychrome seems particularly memorable, Baum liked all of them enough to bring them back in later books—with a considerable raise in Button-Bright’s intelligence.

Perhaps because this road is less dangerous, they reach Oz without the assistance of Ozma or her Magic Belt—and, to quell your curiosity, yes, yes, they do make it just in time for the birthday party. And to hear this little lecture from the Tin Woodman:

“Money! Money in Oz!” cried the Tin Woodman. “What a queer idea! Did you suppose we are so vulgar as to use money here?”

“Why not?” asked the shaggy man.

“If we used money to buy things with, instead of love and kindness and the desire to please one another, then we should be no better than the rest of the world,” declared the Tin Woodman. “Fortunately money is not known in the Land of Oz at all.  We have no rich, and no poor; for what one wishes the others all try to give him, in order to make him happy, and no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use.”

Ah, communism, you come to Oz at last.

Despite the Tin Woodman’s claims, money had certainly been present in earlier Oz books—along with a considerable amount of pure selfishness. Children bought lemonade with green pennies, and Jinjur spoke disapprovingly of the royal treasury.  And we can probably quibble quite a bit with another part of the Tin Woodman’s statement.  Some people in Oz—the residents of the royal palace in the Emerald City—are very, very rich indeed, as the next few chapters demonstrate.  Ozma’s palace is utterly sumptuous, and her jewelry so plentiful that pieces can even be handed over to the Shaggy Man before he even tells them his real name.

But Baum clearly did not have the royal palace in mind with this statement. Rather, he was envisioning the lives of the ordinary people in Oz, with its agriculturally based economy. Things get built, and sewing is done and musical instruments made, but Baum never shows any factories or construction companies (or workers) or any manufacturing centers.   The Tin Woodman does hastily assure us later that people—including city people—do work in Oz, but only half the time, playing half the time.  But the only workers depicted are farmers, the servants in Ozma’s palace, and various musicians. The Emerald City apparently survives solely on the goodwill of farmers eager to give things away; it itself does not seem to engage in any trade or other work.  The servants all tell us they are delighted to serve, and the Tin Woodman assures us that everyone is delighted with the give and share (mostly give) work/play economy.  And it does, in this book, sound like paradise—especially if you’re living in the Royal Palace.

Three Americans are that lucky by the book’s end.  (Dorothy and Button-Bright head home, to return in later books.)  The first two can be fairly said to have earned their place at the royal palace. The Wizard of Oz is welcomed for his work in building the Emerald City.  (My cynical side thinks that the Ozites might also be hoping that the former ruler might pick up some of the leadership slack—in this book, Ozma, unsurprisingly, is so behind on party preparations that she can’t even properly welcome her guests, in the third straight screw-up of her none-too-lengthy reign.)  Bellina the chicken earned her place by rescuing the royal family of Ev and Ozma’s entire expedition.

The Shaggy Man, the third, is a bum and a self-confessed thief.

He does little in the book except escort Dorothy to Oz*, and given that Ozma could have rescued Dorothy at any moment with her Magic Belt (Ozma of course does no such useful thing), his presence hardly seems absolutely necessary. He’s friendly and relaxed enough, certainly, and his baseball skills help the group escape from the Scoodlers, and he takes rather well to having his head transformed to that of a donkey.

But back to the questionable morals. In the first chapter, he casually steals apples and Dorothy’s little dog. Once in Oz, he confirms that this has not been his first act of thievery—he also stole the Love Magnet. He isn’t overly regretful about this, since the Love Magnet has made everyone love him and helped bring him to Oz.  His distaste for actual work—a characteristic he will retain throughout all the Oz books—remains apparent.

And yet he receives a warm welcome and a suite of rooms at the royal palace, along with gems, fine clothing and more of his favorite apples.

Whoa.

This, in a children’s book? From a writer working in a country ostensibly extolling the virtues of hard work and progress—right after the hardworking Zeb and Jim the cabhorse had been made to feel unwelcome in Oz?

Anyway, once at the party, Baum tries a little cross marketing with a rather clever trick—having each and every one of his characters from other books show up at Ozma’s birthday party, in the hopes that these cameo appearances would intrigue his young readers enough that they would beg for his other books. His hopes flopped—those sales stayed stagnant, and as a kid, I was intrigued only by the mysterious and beautiful Queen Zixi of Ix—but it’s an interesting early example of crossover fiction.

And if the party itself is kind of a letdown after all of that buildup, as a child I was more than happy to envision myself right there with Dorothy and her friends, welcoming the strange and marvelous characters from Oz and other lands. I was and am enthralled with the idea of a fairy falling off a rainbow, forced to dance and dance to stay warm on the cold earth.  (I have to confess: I still sneak a look or two at rainbows to see if I can catch a glimpse of one.) And perhaps, too, I felt comforted with the knowledge that if the Shaggy Man could be welcomed in Oz, anyone could. I know I kept an eye out for magical belts and shoes and rainbows and shifting roads, and I doubt I was the only one.

 

* Incidentally, one detail showing a major cultural shift from the early twentieth century to today: Baum doesn’t expect us to bat an eye at the concept of an eleven-year-old walking off with a tramp to the nearby road crossings, much less Oz, a thought that would have many parents panicking today. Admittedly, he’s walking off with Dorothy, who has so far escapped savage beasts, mean vegetable people and wicked Nomes without a qualm, but still.


Mari Ness is still keeping a hopeful eye on rainbows, although she regretfully reports a distressing lack of falling rainbow fairies in central Florida, where she lives.

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