Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Outsiders in Fairyland: Ojo of Oz

Ojo in Oz is the first book of the Oz series that for me, reads very differently than when I first encountered it. What I vaguely remembered as a marvelous, zany tale with a dancing bear, several beloved Oz characters, and a rather terrifying journey through a frozen, crystallized city (hands down Ruth Plumly Thompson’s most horrific and terrifying image yet) turned out to be, upon rereading, the most problematic and disturbing Oz book yet, surpassed only by one later book in the series.

The book begins with the arrival of Gypsies at the Emerald City. These are fully stereotypical Gypsies: they dance, read fortunes, beg, con, steal and, in Thompson’s words, have swarthy skin. They even have a dancing bear and spicy stew. The citizens of Oz regard them with fear. I use that distinction carefully, because although these Gypsies live in Oz, they are clearly not citizens. After a mere glimpse, the usually silent Unc Nunkie immediately responds to their arrival by identifying the Gypsies as rascals (his term), slamming down and locking his doors and windows, and rushing off to warn Ozma and the Emerald City.  (To put this into perspective, the city has reacted less dramatically to several invasion attempts.)  The first act of the Gypsies: kidnapping young Ojo, who realizes that they are—in Thompson’s words again—cruel and hateful. If Thompson missed a single negative stereotype in the first two chapters alone, I couldn’t tell you.

I don’t know what Gypsies are doing in Oz. When L. Frank Baum had been writing the series, Oz had certainly welcomed other at the margins of American society—hobos, failed farmers, disabled sailors, lost orphans. But, with the odd exception of The Cowardly Lion of Oz (I am assuming that clown was not welcome anywhere in the United States, and Bob Up is an orphan), Thompson had distinctly squelched this pattern. With the exception again of The Cowardly Lion of Oz, her human visitors had all come from more privileged backgrounds, and all chosen to return home to Ev or the United States.  The visitors who did stay (Bill the Weathercock and Benny the living statue) were distinctly inhuman. And most critically, with the exception of Ruggedo’s conquering armies, her previous visiting characters had all arrived as individuals.  The Gypsies arrive as a group, with thoughts of theft, not conquest. They are also the first distinctly ethnic human group in Oz.

In this context, the images Thompson draws of the Gypsies are disturbing, all the more so since, unlike all of these other visitors (aside from the hopeful conquerors) the Gypsies are distinctly not welcome.  As their dancing bear confirms, their wanderings in Oz have left them outcasts, often hungry, forced to steal for food, in contrast to other arriving wanderers, welcomed to the royal palace or to small homes someplace in Oz.  And unlike many of the other socially marginal or hostile characters, and specifically, the human marginal or hostile characters, the Gypsies are specifically defined by ethnicity, not choice.  The pirates, after all, chose to be pirates. The non-Gypsy bandits in this and other Thompson books clarify that they chose to be bandits.  The witches choose to be witches. And so on. The very few innately bad creatures and characters of Oz are distinctly non-human, and even there, their race does not always define them as evil; both Thompson and Baum emphasized that even some of the gnomes, Oz’s most prominent and reoccurring villains, could be good. For the human characters, until this book, being good or evil (or mischievous) was a matter of choice, not destiny. 

But the Gypsies in this book, even though they frequently sing songs of freedom, are given no choice. At the end of the book, Ozma banishes the Gypsies to wander in southern Europe. Reading this with the knowledge of what was to happen to the Romani less than ten years after this book’s publication (1933), I could only hope that “southern Europe” here meant Spain and Portugal, not Italy, Albania, or what was then southern Yugoslavia, and that this particular group of Gypsies never did wander north.

I grant that Thompson, writing in 1932 and 1933, could not have anticipated the eventual fate of the Romani. But it’s difficult for me to read this without remembering the results of attitudes like the ones she displays here.

(And, from another perspective, even if we agree that Ozma is correct in assuming that the Gypsies are unrepentant, unchangeable troublemakers and thieves, which I don’t, then she has just unloaded her problem onto a country that hasn’t done anything to her, and forced authorities there to deal with the problem. Compare C.S. Lewis, who sent his evil Telmarines to a deserted island where they only thing they could harm was the endemic wildlife, not otherwise innocent people who do not need the arrival of people perceived as dangerous.)

To worsen matters, a completely different fate awaits the non-Gypsy bandits of the tale—bandits who also have been stealing, threatening and kidnapping people, and who kidnap Ojo (in a second kidnapping) in the hopes of earning of a large bag of sapphires. These bandits are transformed into Winkie farmers and allowed to settle happily in Oz, in striking contrast.

And then we have this description of Dicksy Land, a land of queer men, and only men:

There were no women, hence not much conversation. Dorothy decided that this was because men were queerer than women, but I am not so sure about this. The Dicks themselves were odd-looking enough. Some were queer about their shoe, some were queer about their diet. There was one who actually made a living with his pen and another who had once sold an idea to a millionaire. Some looked queer, some acted queer, but they were all gentle and harmless…

By 1933, the word “queer” most definitely had its additional, contemporary meaning (the first documented use of this meaning of the word dates from the 1920s) especially when used to describe men living without women.  If we had any doubt that an elaborate gay joke is going on here, even if we don’t know what it’s doing here, the name of the settlement—Dicksy Land—and the name of the dictator—Dickus (reading, of course, Dickens) provide a few additional anvils.

And yet, everyone, without exception, in Dicksy Land is welcome in Oz, untroubled and perfectly satisfied, so satisfied that the Dictator complains that he’ll never be able to prove that he’s a real Dictator since he never gets to “quell an uprising or put down a revolt.”  In part, this returns to Thompson’s repeated theme that the road to happiness includes submitting to rightful leaders. But Dicksy Land also shows that Oz does not have to be intolerant, or to follow the harsh responses of the real, 1930s world to the gay community.  Even in her more conservative portrayal of Oz as a fairyland of princes and kings, the country could still welcome the marginal and the outcasts.  The message: Oz is great for gays (and in other books, not so bad for the disabled).  But not so great, however, for ethnic groups such as the Gypsies.

This failure cannot be excused on a lack of imagination or unwillingness to depart from stereotypical descriptions. Like her Gypsies, Thompson’s knights, pirates and questing young princes had all been lifted from literary tropes, but with those characters, she had been able to tinker with stereotypes to create a friendly and scholarly pirate, cowardly knights, and princes with distinct personalities. If she needed new villains, she had puns to play with; if she needed Gypsies in particular, she could have abandoned the stereotypes, or perhaps created another take on the concept of a wandering, outcast people, much like Robert Jordan’s considerably more nuanced version of the Tinkers in the Wheel of Time series.  But she did not.

Other, more general notes: Although Thompson generally wrote better when she was allowed to focus on her own characters, here she apparently bowed to the pressure of her publisher and returned to the Baum characters, with Ojo, Scraps, Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, Unc Nunkie, Ozma and Glinda taking major to minor roles. This use of Baum’s characters did not, however, signal a return to Baum’s Oz.  Money makes another appearance: the Gypsies, sigh, have been stealing gold coins, and both the Gypsies and the bandits are eager to deliver Ojo to an evil magical for a distinctly financial reward of sapphires. This is unusual. Most evil doers in Oz are after power, not money.  Also unusual: a surprising amount of cruelty to and killing of animals. It’s probably normal enough for bandits to hunt and sleep on fur, but here, they are hunting talking, fully sentient animals, a point only emphasized by the presence of a talking bear and a talking lion.

Quite apart from her treatment of the Gypsies, the usual Ozma fail is here as well: she has done nothing to stop the non-Gypsy bandits from wandering around Oz and terrorizing the inhabitants; yet another magic user is defying her laws against practicing magic; she has allowed the entire royal family of Seebania to remain in exile and imprisonment (and it’s telling that Unc Nunkie never approaches her for help); she’s ignored the gross mistreatment of a talking, dancing bear; and she again shows her unawareness of many of the smaller spots of Oz. Too, something (possibly the Great Depression) is up with Oz’s previously profligate food sources: the fully prepared lunches, dinners and other scrumptious treats just hanging from tree are gone, forcing travelers to forage for eggs and berries and in some cases go hungry. I can’t help but wonder if Ozma has also been neglecting Oz’s agriculture.

But all that fades to little next to Ozma’s decision to banish the Gypsies to southern Europe. It’s a decision that, as I noted, I hardly noticed as a child.  This time, it stained my impression of the entire book.

Mari Ness’ Jewish grandfather left Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  Not all of his extended family followed.


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