Baum had tried, more than tried, to abandon the Oz books, to the point of creating a totally new series about another little girl, Trot, her companion Cap’n Bill, and their adventures in completely different fairylands. Alas, that series failed to sell as well as the Oz books. So, never one to abandon characters, Baum decided to bring Trot and Cap’n Bill to Oz via a plot recycled from an Oz silent film, much as he had cobbled together Tik-Tok of Oz from a stage musical.
But perhaps because he’d had more practice with the technique this time around, The Scarecrow of Oz is a considerably better book, with only a few awkward bumps from when Trot and Cap’n Bill are dragged down into a whirlpool to the moment they find themselves pitchforked into an evil plot in Oz.
The first few chapters crackle with adventure as Trot and Cap’n Bill journey through dark caves and nearly deserted islands with only a strange Ork, a flying creature who puts himself decidedly above birds, for company. They find themselves in the Land of Mo (another of Baum’s recycling old material moments) where the water is actually lemonade; snow is actually hot and fresh perfectly buttered and salted popcorn, ideal for breakfast; and people eat candy for dinner. Here they find Button-Bright, inexplicably yet happily buried in the popcorn. To the astonishment of children everywhere, they decide to leave in search for better food (were they not paying attention to the fact that they got CANDY for DINNER?) and land in Jinxland—right in the middle of the plot from the Scarecrow of Oz movie.
This second, frequently hilarious plot focuses on the tangled and confused tale of Princess Gloria, rightful heir to Jinxland; her evil uncle King Krewl; Pon the Gardener’s Boy, in love with Gloria; the wealthy yet awful courtier Googly-Goo; the evil witch Blinkie; and the Scarecrow, sent along by Glinda the Sorceress to save Trot, Cap’n Bill and Button-Bright—and do a bit of conquest and nation building while he’s at it. It’s one of the few times Baum allows romance to enter his Oz books, and not surprisingly, the romance is treated with a decidedly skeptical and hilarious note. (Both Trot and Button-Bright, singularly unimpressed with Pon as a person, prince, and lover, advise both lovers to just get over it. Princess Gloria, however, explains soulfully that a woman cannot choose whom she might love, she just, well, loves, unworthy object or not. Although this might explain a lot, Trot doesn’t buy it, and her reactions—and Button-Bright’s—are priceless.)
Baum tweaks the usual fairy tale ending. Instead of automatically elevating the rightful heir to the throne at the tale’s end, he adds an unexpected note of populism/quasi democracy by having the Scarecrow ask the people of Jinxland to name their ruler. Not surprisingly, they take a look at the available candidates and yell out, “Scarecrow!” He, however, refuses, and with a little more tugging, the people of Jinxland yell out a name and by popular, democratic consent become a monarchy again. Er. Yay?
Trot is an interesting contrast to Dorothy—much more so than the previous book’s new heroine, Betsy Bobbin, who Baum finally gave a personality (“a shy little thing”) in this book. Trot, like Dorothy, has already travelled to strange and fantastical lands, and is no stranger to magic. But where Dorothy automatically and aggressively judges nearly everyone she meets, Trot does not. Unlike Dorothy, Trot is never alone, and thus, is never in the position of having to make instant friends or enemies. So while she occasionally resorts to the same moral pronouncements that Dorothy does, she also can be and is more skeptical of the people she meets—including potential friends—and more able to take her time to get to know them.
And although Trot has family—a mother mentioned as a mere aside in this book—this is apparently not family she feels eager to return to or bring along. Her true family is her companion Cap’n Bill, and since they are never separated, she never needs to worry about him—or beg to be allowed to bring him, too, to Oz.
Though I’ve always wondered what happened to Trot’s mother when—if—she noticed that her little girl had vanished. Did she, like her daughter, happen to read the Oz books, and in that way find out that her daughter was safe? (For yes, in a nice meta-moment, Trot, a California resident, has read all of the Oz books before her journey, and therefore is able to identify all of the curious personages she meets in the Emerald City.)
Scarecrow of Oz also reintroduces Button-Bright, this time as a major Oz character, with the characteristic that would define him for the rest of the series: getting lost. He gets lost largely because of his utterly laid back attitude towards life, which he takes exactly as it comes. If that happens to lead him astray, to the frequent annoyance of his friends, so be it. I can’t help but wonder, though, how much of this insouciance stems from getting lost in delightful fairylands instead of, say, mysterious twitchy islands with strange hatches and murderous smoke monsters. But I confuse my geekdoms again. Moving on.
And for those keeping track—yep, yet another moment of Ozma fail. At the end of the book, we see her watching the story play out on her big screen TV—er, her Magic Picture—perhaps in a nod to the story’s origins as a silent film. Ozma laments that if anything happens to Trot and co. it will “reflect badly” on her since “Jinxland is part of my domains.” So, it’s just fine to leave an evil dictator in power in your domains for years, but once an American shows up, now you’re inclined to do something about it? And it never occurred to you that letting this guy seize power and torture your citizens in the first place reflected badly on you? Not to mention showing us yet another example of a witch (actually, several witches) merrily and happily completely ignoring your decree that only you, Glinda and the Wizard are allowed to practice magic in Oz? Sigh. She follows this tidbit up by almost allowing the Scarecrow to burn to death, never lifting a finger to help him, even with that oh so convenient teleporting Magic Belt still around.
Oh, Ozma. I begin to see, yet again, why you need to rely on those fairy powers to stay in control.
Mari Ness has to admit that even with fairy powers, she might not be able to control Oz either—she’d be too busy having adventures. In the meantime, she lives in central Florida and reads and writes a lot. Probably too much.