Nov 5 2009 1:00pm

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.


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.

Clay Cox
1. Clay Cox
I love these articles. I never read all of the OZ books when I was a kid, but even as an adult I find them incredibly fascinating. Can't wait for the rest of your series on OZ.
Sean Arthur
2. wsean
Commies! It's funny that when I read this as a kid, I never noticed any of this stuff--the changes from previous books, the Shaggy Man's thievish nature being rewarded, the cross-promotion (which actually worked on me).

Although I definitely noticed that this one wasn't as good as the first few books.
Clay Cox
3. Jim Henry III
The Love Magnet is pretty creepy, both here and in Tik-Tok of Oz, where it also plays a major role; but I have to say Baum didn't use it as a deus ex machina to get the Shaggy Man and his companions out of trouble, as he could have. Everyone who sees him loves him; but on two or three occasions they're determined to do him harm anyway, whether because they'd love to eat him, as here with the Scoodlers, or because they feel it their duty to oppose him despite their love for him, as somewhere in Tik-Tok of Oz. And sometimes he meets people with no hearts who are unaffected by the magnet.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@1 ClayCox - Thanks!

@2 wsean - When I was a kid, I was too busy wanting to be in Oz to notice any of the Oz flaws. I did notice the changes between the books, and wondered why, and made up some elaborate (and baseless) stories to explain the inconsistencies, but this never stopped me from reading it.

@3 Jim Henry III - The creepiness of the Love Magnet never hit me until much later. As a kid who had problems making friends (I read these when our family was living overseas and right after we returned to the U.S., both times of severe cultural adjustment) I rather liked the idea of owning something that would make people like me. As an adult I'm horrified by the concept, but I have a feeling that this is one of those times where Baum is speaking more directly to children.

And yeah, it only works if you don't have a heart - it doesn't seem to work on quite a few of the Tik-Tok characters, and I doubt it would be particularly effective on the Scarecrow or the Patchwork Girl. And I'm not sure what effect even it could have on the ruby heart of the Glass Cat.
Clay Cox
5. outsidecounsel
The Scoodlers and the Wheelers were just about the creepiest characters in the OZ books. Baum was a twisted dude, and he had a habit of painting himself into narrative corners. In our family we are fond of the fact that since nobody dies or can be killed you could grind someone up into hamburger and then have animate hamburger to contend with. Ick.

That said, the Scoodlers' exchange with the travelers: "Who are you?" "Scoodlers!" "What do you want?" "You!" "What for?" "Soup!" is also a favorite in my household, something we repeat regularly. (We also quote Button-Bright: "Don't wanna be soup!")
Felicity Shoulders
6. Felicity
I also quote the Scoodlers. "Don't you love me?" "WE LOVE YOU IN SOUP!" My loved ones don't understand when I say I love them in soup. Sigh.

I was very impressed by Oz's socialism as a child (in the late Cold War era, no less). I explained to my mom that Ozma's political system was totally awesome, and it would work very well in the real world. She listened, blinked, and said, "Honey, that's socialism." I was very perplexed by her counter-explanation, because the Russians had KILLED their royalty, so it obviously wasn't the same system.

I also loved Polychrome, who was my favorite Oz character for years, and the party was hugely wish-fulfilling for me (probably because I wasn't allowed much junk food growing up.) I did eventually buy and enjoy Life and Adventures of Santa Claus but other than that the cross-marketing failed.

Thanks for the post.
Clay Cox
7. ericshanower
The Road to Oz was the first full-length Oz book I experienced. My parents read a chapter each night to my sister and me. It cemented my love for the Oz books. This year is its 100th anniversary, so for the Winkie Con last July a bunch of people (including Gregory Maguire, John Fricke, and me) wrote essays about it for the Winkie Convention Program book. Many of the essays discussed things along the lines of how the book was a plotless, conflict-less, almost pointless travelogue followed by a party recounted in the style of the social page of Baum's day. Yet many of the essayists admitted a fondness for the book, despite its inability to measure up to the criteria of "good literature."

Part of my continuing fondness for The Road to Oz is John R. Neill's illustrations. This was arguably the high point of his work for the Oz books. He gave the limp goings-on a solidity that still sucks me in.

As a child I had none of the problems with the story that anyone has pointed out here. I loved the Shaggy Man, Button-bright, and Polychrome. Dorothy is never so much herself as she is in this book. The parade of visiting royalty and the minute descriptions of the banquet and entertainment were captivating. I'm still drawn in when I read the book, though I can objectively see why none of it ought to work.

I don't find the Love Magnet creepy. The Magic Picture, yes, but not the Love Magnet. I think its power is never portrayed as strong enough and it's never used manipulatively enough by any of the characters to function as much more than a symbol.

Sky Island is one of my favorite books period and I'd recommend it highly. The Road to Oz, I think, requires an immense dollop of nostalgia--and good reproduction of the Neill illustrations--and I wouldn't recommend it without strong caveats.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@outsidecounsel and @felicity I say we should start a campaign to have everyone say, "I love you in soup!"

The comment is completely lost on my family, too, though. Alas.

And yeah, the Scoodlers trying to eat people is fairly creepy, although I was more disturbed by the thought of detachable heads that could be thrown like balls. I had to check that my own head was still on.

@ericshanower I absolutely agree that the illustrations in this book are particularly wonderful - I think one reason why I immediately fell in love with Polychrome was that delightful image he created of her dancing on the road, not to mention the illustration of her meeting with Ozma. And the picture of Dorothy looking at the former illustration of herself with a puzzled expression is great.

Sky Island is, indeed, a wonderful book.

I'll have a lot more to say about The Magic Picture in later books - except for that awkward insertion in Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz it seems to play a more minor role in the earlier books, and I wasn't alerted to the full creepiness level until Scarecrow of Oz.
Clay Cox
9. Carbonel
Think of it as early innoculation: communisim = fairy tale.
Clay Cox
11. Princess Ozma
Not to nitpick but I think communism is clearly the wrong word since Oz has a class based structure, your second word Utopia is more correct (a system where the needs of all of the people are met, and this can be done through not so nice means as slavery sometimes, and doesn't disculde the idea of a ruling elite in the same way Marxism does (and Marx didn't like Utopiaism). Baum also doesn't advocate such a system for the states, as in the Emerald City he comments that such a system would be impracticle for us.

And yes, before you argue that in practice almost every Communist system did develop a class structure (that is "The Party" becomes the elite). I am aware, but since Baum lived and died before the Russian Revolution it isn't fair to veiw him through the lense of Lenninism, or Stalinism or Maoism...

Don't think I'm trying to be harsh, cause I love your reviews, they're really making me think about the Oz novel I'm working on (but more of that on my comment on your Ozma of Oz reveiw).
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
Princess Ozma -

I think this is less a nitpick than perhaps differing use of terms?

I used the term communism because it is clear in this book, and even more so in later books, that Oz people are expected to give and share freely of everything they might make or grow, and in return, expect to have their needs met. (For all of my criticism of Ozma, she does hold up her end of the bargain in that respect - later books make if very clear that she is paying very close attention to the contents of the country's storehouses, for instance, to ensure that everyone has access to an ample food supply.) This sort of communism, practiced by various communities throughout history (and nearly always ending up in failure) does not always include an elimination of class, although in its most ideal form it does.

Marxism as a political concept is of course highly aware of class and eager to eliminate it - and as you correctly point out, when applied in a political context, ends up establishing an elite. Baum actually died shortly after both Russian Revolutions but I don't think either influenced his work - although World War I certainly did.

Baum does state that this sort of system wouldn't be practical for the United States - but even with that statement, he notes that this system leads to absolute happiness, and, his readers would have noted, abundant food and an absence of war. He may recognize the impracticalities, but that doesn't stop him from holding Oz up as an ideal, and an approach to perfect happiness.
Clay Cox
13. Charlie Mane
**And the picture of Dorothy looking at the former illustration of herself with a puzzled expression is great.**

I remember seeing that picture and wondering why Dorothy and Toto didn't STILL look like those statues. I hated Toto as a Boston Terrier! (And I still hate the blonde Dorothy).
Mari Ness
14. MariCats
That Road to Oz illustration confused me as well until I finally saw the Denslow illustrations. (My edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn't use the Denslow illustrations, and confusingly enough depicted Glinda as blonde and not, in my own opinion, beautiful enough.) Once I did, I fully appreciated the joke.

I figured that somewhere along the way, Dorothy found a Magic Comb that conveniently enough switched her hair from blonde to light brown to dark brown (Judy Garland) depending on circumstances. In reality, it shows that, in general, Baum was not overly concerned with hair color.
Clay Cox
15. David Lenander
I, too, loved Road above most of the other Oz books (and to this day dislike Dorothy & the Wizard). So does one of the characters in Edward Eager's Seven Day Magic. And Roger Sale, in his fine book on Children's fantasy, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White, discusses it as the finest of the books, it seems to me. But reading it as an adult I am somewhat puzzled by this. Eric is right about the wonderful art--I'm sorry that none of these were done in color, and frankly, the idea of the different colored pages is better than the actualization, but as a child none of the library copies available to me had any color illustrations and these are wonderful. I have some ideas, I think there's some archetypal things about the wonderful beginning, the twelve roads opening up around them, the pool of Truth, the heads of fox and ass, the Rainbow's daughter, that work on a level that is subconscious, but I don't know exactly why.
Mari Ness
16. MariCats
@David Lenander -- I think part of it is that Dorothy and the Wizard contains some downright unpleasant and even cruel moments. Apart from the Scoodler and the soup bit, The Road to Oz doesn't -- it's a very reassuring story, assuring us that the unknown is not necessarily fearful, and that terrible things can be reversed.

And I just love the idea that fairies live on rainbows and sometimes fall off. That's wonderful. Maybe because rainbows just seem so magical in real life, even if I've been assured by scientists that they appear for perfectly logical, explicable and scientific reasons.

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