Thu
Nov 26 2009 1:00pm

Fairness and Foolishness: The Patchwork Girl of Oz

No matter what else Baum wrote, his readers constantly demanded more Oz books. So, just three years after swearing off the series forever, when he found himself short of money again, he broke down and wrote a new Oz book.  (Conan Doyle would have sympathized.)  However brief, the break invigorated him: The Patchwork Girl of Oz is one of Baum’s best Oz books, an assured and fast-moving fairy tale raising questions of fairness and comparative morality.

Despite the title, the story centers around the quest of young Ojo the Munchkin to find six strange ingredients needed for a potion that can restore his uncle and a neighbor to life. (A magician accidentally turned them into stone.) In the first half of the book, Ojo and his companions, new characters the Glass Cat and the Patchwork Girl, travel to the Emerald City, meeting the Shaggy Man, the Scarecrow and the Woozy (whose tail is one of the needed ingredients) along the way.

At the Emerald City, Ojo is imprisoned for the crime of stealing another necessary ingredient, a six leaf clover.  Ojo does not deny the crime; he finds the law foolish. Ozma explains that since six leaf clovers form a major component of evil spells, and since evil magicians and witches continue to practice magic despite her laws forbidding magic, she has outlawed the picking of six leaf clovers. Why Ozma thinks that people who are already flouting the first law will care too much about anti-clover picking laws is unclear.

(Believe it or not, I really don’t want to be all about the Ozma hate. But honestly, Ozma, would it have killed you to, you know, explain the idea behind your law to the Shaggy Man, at least, so that it would not have seemed so arbitrary and unfair? Especially given that just two books ago you merrily welcomed a self confessed thief of magical items to Oz, so arresting a kid that only wanted to save his uncle by picking a six leaf clover comes off as particularly unfair.  No wonder the Wizard has to provide the required happy ending of the book—but I anticipate.)

After this, Ojo, the Patchwork Girl, Dorothy and the Scarecrow head off on a quest to find the other remaining ingredients. They find two seemingly impossible ones. Triumphantly, they are about to take the last item—the left wing of a yellow butterfly—only to be stopped by an indignant Tin Woodman, who states that pulling off a butterfly’s wing is torture. He will not permit it, even to bring Unc Nunkie back to life.

When I first read this book as a child, I was horrified that my kind hearted Tin Woodman was willing to let two people—one a beloved uncle of the main character—remain stone statues, essentially dead, all to keep a butterfly from feeling any pain.  And although as an adult I can see the Tin Woodman’s point, I still find the elevation of a butterfly over the urgent needs of two humans morally dubious.  This isn’t just about making them happy; this is letting the humans live—and not incidentally, bringing the only relative Ojo has ever known back to life.

(My distressed feeling is not helped by Ozma’s squeaking, “oooh, if you'd just told me that you'd needed the left wing of a yellow butterfly, I would have told you not to bother to take that trip.”  Gee, THANKS OZMA! Oh. Right. Just said I didn't want to be all about the Ozma hate. Onwards!)

Ojo makes the same argument. But the Tin Woodman, a moral absolutist, declares that torture is never justified. Even on insects.

(I’ll just tiptoe by the obvious contemporary parallel, shall I?)

Incidentally, it’s the second time in the book that characters have placed the needs of insects over the needs of others, continuing the minor theme of Insects They Are Awesome Don’t Kill Them running through all of the Oz books.

Baum is not just against torture, but against harsh punishments as well:

We consider a prisoner unfortunate.  He is unfortunate in two ways — because he has done something wrong and because he is deprived of his liberty. Therefore, we should treat him kindly, because of his misfortune, for otherwise he would become hard and bitter and would not be sorry he had done wrong...

And so the guilty Ojo is treated kindly, feels terrible shame indeed, and readily confesses and feels sorry for his crime. But before we get too comfortable with the overwhelming kindness of Oz, the Shaggy Man gives us this little bit:

“In this country,” remarked the Shaggy Man, “people live wherever our Ruler tells them to. It wouldn’t do to have everyone live in the Emerald City, you know, for some must plow the land and raise grains and fruits and vegetables, while others chop wood in the forests, or fish in the rivers, or herd the sheep and the cattle.”

This, coming from the one character who never seems to do any work at all, and enjoys a luxurious suite of rooms at the palace, seems a little much.  Previous books had already shown that certain characters, thanks to their friendship with Ozma or by virtue of their uniqueness, were able to ditch the idea of work entirely, living in luxury surrounded by servants, but this is the first indication that Ozma is actually ordering the workforce around to ensure that the system works. (It’s only fair to add that some of the queer and magical characters do work—Jack Pumpkinhead, for instance, is a hard working and skilled pumpkin farmer and baker of pumpkin pies.)  This is also the first book emphasizing that only certain people are allowed to practice magic to make their lives a little easier. Hmm.

Two things mar Patchwork Girl: an incident with the Tottenhots, meant to refer to stereotypical descriptions of the Hottenhots of South Africa, and the horrible song played by the living phonograph, with the godawful lyrics, “Ah wants mah Lulu, my coal-black Lulu.”  The Oz characters, to their credit, also object to this song, even if they seem to be reacting more to the sound than to the lyrics.  Both bits are jarring in a book where a literally colorful woman, created to be a household slave, earns her independence and merrily defends her unusual, “crazy” appearance, refusing to be pitied or condemned. It’s also a depressing reminder that here, at least, Baum was all too much a man of his age, despite his pointed examples of tolerance and acceptance of differing sorts of people in this and other Oz books.

(The racial references have been removed in the Books of Wonder editions, but can be found in other printings and in the Gutenberg etexts.  The rest of Baum’s Oz books, with the exception of another unfortunate reference in Rinkitink in Oz, are generally free of racial stereotyping, although Baum did pen bigoted statements against Native Americans in non-Oz related contexts.)


Mari Ness would happily pick a six leaf clover to perform a little magic, if she could find one. She lives in central Florida.

9 comments
seth e.
1. seth e.
This is my favorite re-read series currently on Tor.com, though I don't have much to add. I've always liked Baum's amiable inventiveness; I have to say I never really thought about Ozma's failures as ruler, but it does add up to a pretty consistent condemnation of absolute monarchy. Was Baum just not aware of the implications? Was he (a middle-class feminist and populist, sort of, for his time) sneaking one under the radar?
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
Baum continually tells us how sweet and kind and beautiful and beloved the Ruler of Oz is, but aside from the beloved part, he rarely shows this.

To be honest, I never really noticed the myriad failures until I read the books at one fell swoop for this project, when it became obvious that something was going on here. I'm not sure what, but your theory of sneaking one under the radar definitely works for me.
seth e.
3. Jim Henry III
This one has its plot problems, especially at the end, but it's a breath of fresh air after the last two; and Scraps and the Glass Cat are wonderful characters. I've just been re-reading The Lost Princess of Oz, in which Scraps also has an important role and sometimes steals the show from ostensibly more important characters, like Billina in Ozma of Oz.

With the living phonograph, it seems as though Baum is parodying ragtime and proto-jazz; he also has sardonic things to say about classical music or the cult thereof, which you don't mention:

"It is classical music, and is considered the best and most puzzling ever manufactured. You're supposed to like it, whether you do or not, and if you don't, the proper thing is to look as if you did. Understand?"

"Not in the least," said Scraps.


This used to be one of my favorite of the Oz books, but on further re-readings the flawed endings of this one, and of Rinkitink in Oz (also one of my favorites from when I first read them) bother me more than they used to, while I find that Tik-Tok of Oz and The Tin Woodman of Oz get better with re-reading; at this point, having re-read twelve of Baum's fourteen (plus The Sea Fairies and Sky Island) in the last couple of months, I'd rank The Tin Woodman of Oz just below The Marvelous Land of Oz and The Wizard of Oz as one of the two or three best. Still, The Patchwork Girl of Oz has a lot of great characters and incidents even if the plot unravels at the end.
seth e.
4. seth e.
I'd like to think of Baum as having a secret agenda, but he's just never struck me as, I don't know, introspective enough to pull it off. He's got a mildly horrifying verse in Father Goose, I think, in which he encourages children to go into debt to buy the things they want--don't bother saving for a rainy day, and who knows, maybe it won't rain. This is literally his advice. Someone who's that into instant gratification as an economic philosophy seems like they're on Ozma's side, frankly.

My own favorite Oz books are Rinkitink, one of his transparent get-me-the-hell-out-of-Oz books, and Glinda, his last. As a kid I liked Rinkitink despite the plot holes, which amount to brining all of Oz in at the end as one big deus ex machina. As an adult I kind of like it because of that. It's all you could really do with Oz at that point.

I liked Glinda because the adventure felt more scale-appropriate--the dei ex machina are actually in the midst of things for once--and for the weird mix, in both the story and the illustrations, of magic and "technology." I especially remember a great Neill illustration of Glinda, in her fairy queen robes, peering earnestly through a sextant-like thingy at the underwater town.

I had a theory at one time that the magic in Baum's stories worked better than the point-and-shoot Magic Energy in modern fantasies, because it was somewhat technical. Much more fun, anyway.
seth e.
5. seth e.
I should have said that Baum's magic was always appealing to me because it was somewhat technical, which magic should be in practice, and also because it doesn't really make sense in the end, which magic shouldn't. Baum never really explained how Glinda and the Wizard worked, what they knew, and how they did their magical stuff, but it all involved a lot of mysterious operations with weird gear. These crazy kids with their modern magic these days, it's like electricity; you point and push a button, or just concentrate really hard, and predictable things happen. No mystery, too much explanation.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@Jim Henry - I'll have a lot more to say about Rinkitink soon, but like you, I found that the plot problems bugged me much more this time around.

But the two books are rather related - two boys attempt to save their parents/guardians, do everything right in their quest, but in the end, are unable to save their parents/guardians without outside assistance. I find this less frustrating in Patchwork Girl, where it's clear from at least the middle of the book that the laws of Oz are going to give Ojo problems, than in Rinkitink where the only reason Inga can't save his parents is that Baum needed to change the book into an Oz book and bring in Oz characters.

@Seth e - I love Rinkitink right up to the point where Dorothy appears to save the day, which annoys me so much that I have to put the book down. I agree that Glinda is one of the best of the Oz books.

And yes, I always loved the fact that Glinda, Ozma and the Wizard all have little workshops, just like magical laboratories and stuff, to conduct magical research and create magical tools. And quite a few of their magical tools eventually became part of our technology (I'm thinking mostly of the Magic Picture here, but the Wizard has a few anticipatory tricks as well.)
seth e.
7. elsiekate
and it was along about this book that i thought it would be very pleasant if baum would spare us his bouts of poetry. this one and the next two, and i think that rinkitink had a bad habit of singing little songs or something, too, didn't he? anyway, i'm sure i'm going to miss something at some point but i am skipping all poems.
seth e.
8. John Cowan
The ban on picking six-leaf clovers isn't that silly: it's like the ban on pseudephrine, the now-replaced ingredient in decongestants, in over-the-counter drugs. Cooking meth was already illegal when pseudephrine was banned; it just made things a little bit harder for meth labs.

It also reminds me of an idea of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's (a politician just about the polar opposite of Ozma of Oz). Gun control in the U.S. (whether you think it good or bad) can't possibly attain its objectives, because there are enough guns and gun parts in circulation already to last for a century or more. The U.S. supply of ammunition, on the other hand, is only about eighteen months' worth of it. So, said DPM, don't try to regulate gun sales, regulate ammo sales. Like most DPM ideas, this was way too intelligent to have any hope of passage.
seth e.
9. D. Cohen
Of all the Oz books, The Patchwork Girl of Oz strikes me as the one that is most centered around moral dilemmas. Moral dilemmas don't seem to enter into the Oz books very often: the good characters are good and the wicked characters are wicked, and that's that. This book highlights the fact that even in Oz, the question of what is good isn't always a simple one.

Dr. Pipt is breaking the law by creating a magical servant. It is easy for him (and the reader) to make excuses for his doing so ("Its a dumb law!" "I'm not hurting anyone." etc). However, in doing so he inadvertantly sets up the siutation that causes all the problems.

And it does not stop there. Dr. Pipt's actions also stir a sense of moral confusion in Ojo. Ojo takes it on himself to decide that what Dr. Pipt is doing is not right, and this thought inspires him to sabotage Dr. Pipt's work. In doing so, Ojo plays a role in the disaster that petrifies Unc Nunkie and Margolette (again, inadvertantly).

Now, here's the kicker, they know that their queen is benevolent and magical. If they had fessed up to what they had done, they could have saved their loved ones easily. Yes, there would probably be some punishment, but one of the most touching chapters in the book is he description of the humane way Oz deals with those who break the law.

However, instead of doing what is right, Ojo and company try to surreptitiously fix the situation themselves. In doing so, they turn a bad situtaion into a complete mess. Has any child not found him or herself in a mess by trying to cover up and fix a wrongdoing? I know I did, lots of times.

By refusing to allow a butterfly to be maimed, the Tin Woodman is saying, "Enough! No more moral flexibility! Here is a line that will not be crossed!" It is only then that the best solution for the problem can be implemented. The voice inside the reader that says "its just a butterfly" is the same kind of voice that created the mess in the first place.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is truly unique among Baum's books in that it has a clear moral: whe you break the rules, trying to cover it up will only make things worse. This moral makes it as much a fable as it is a fairy tale. Furthermore, the moral is presented in a fun, non-preachy way that just about any child can understand.

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