In Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson continued her focus on some of the underutilized characters from Baum’s books—those who had never gotten a book of their own. This book, as you can probably guess from the title, features Jack Pumpkinhead, that amiable, lugubrious man of little brain but many seeds—using his inherent, physically fragile nature for a very clever plot twist.
Jack Pumpkinhead also brings back Thompson’s happy-go-lucky American hero, Peter of Philadelphia. If he’s still primarily focused on the needs of his baseball team, he’s always up for a quest through the many tiny kingdoms of Oz, even when chased by angry talking Christmas trees desperately looking for ornaments. (The calm Jack Pumpkinhead explains to an irritated Peter that in Oz, “Christmas trees are more progressive, more up-and-coming.” Fair enough, I suppose, but I’m still not sure that I could handle a tree that throws old Christmas ornaments in my direction.) In a nice touch, this time Peter’s love for baseball comes into real use in both Oz and the plot.
The main plot, fortunately enough, has very little to do with angry Christmas trees—the tree functions, indeed, mainly as a method for introducing a new magic item: a little dinner bell that instantly summons up a nice hot meal when rung. Not only does this immediately solve the issue of how to keep Peter fed on the journey, but, as it turns out, the food and the plates also make for excellent weapons when thrown by a young baseball player. The angry Christmas tree gone, the main plot starts up—not surprisingly, focusing on yet another one of Ozma’s leadership failures. (It’s gotten to the point where I’m just expecting the fail.)
Not only has Ozma failed to even notice, much less take care of, a group of monsters merrily and blatantly terrorizing a section of Oz (they even call themselves “Scare City,” so it’s not as if they’re even trying to hide what they’re doing), but she has also failed to notice a war, a kidnapping, and an attempt at a forced marriage threatening the land of the Barons. She’s also unaware of yet another magician—this one called a miserable mesmerizer—merrily defying her “only my friends and I get to do magic” law, and not incidentally causing a severe beard problem while doing so.
The chief troublemaker, a certain Mogodore, kidnaps Princess Shirley Sunshine (a rare lapse in Thompson’s usually excellent character names) on her wedding day, largely by taking advantage of her groom’s growing beard problem. The groom, a baron deeply dissatisfied with his appearance, was attempting to enchant his beard; the resulting disaster of a beard that will not stop growing at an exceedingly rapid rate does argue in favor of Ozma’s anti-magic laws, and also has the sense of a rather personally sharp insight into the dangers of giving into pre-wedding jitters. Shirley spends her kidnapping taunting Mogodore for his many inadequacies. Infuriated, he decides to invade the Emerald City to prove just how great he is. (Apparently, simple flowers aren’t his thing.)
The rest of the book bears a certain resemblance to a wild romance in the Baroness Orczy tradition, as Peter, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the bearded baron frantically attempt to stop the invasion plans, with the help of a delightful Iffin. (He’s a griffin who has lost his grr, a loss that does not crush his spirits or his commendable tendency to burst into verse.) The heroes are armed with guts and magic—the dinner bell and what is clearly a Bag of Holding, here used in a way that would bring applause from power gamers everywhere.
But, alas, their efforts are hampered when none of the magic quite works the way the adventurers expect, allowing Mogodore to laugh at the adventurers and throw them into a dungeon. The villain merrily trots off to the Emerald City, where Ozma is hard at work defending the good citizens of Oz. Ha, ha, ha. Forgive me for my little joke. In actual fact, Ozma is playing Blind Man’s Buff. (Seriously. I feel the symbolism speaks for itself here.) Mogodore, genuinely shocked by the city’s complete lack of preparation, speaks out:
“High time for a new King here,” sniffed Mogodore scornfully. “A city without defenses! No army! No guards! What can they expect but capture?”
“The silly dunces are playing a game,” whispered Mogodore to his trembling steward. “They’re blindfolded and all we have to do is to jump over the wall and seize them.”
Which is exactly what they do. Great job, Ozma!
Mogodore does have a point. By my count, this is at least the sixth attack on, or kidnapping of the residents of, the Emerald City so far, and we have far more to go. Under the circumstances, posting one or two guards could be considered a justified expense, especially for a city wealthy enough to barter emerald rings for strawberries.
This also highlights one reason for my growing (and it is growing) exasperation for the Ozma Fail here: the transformation of Ozma from an active, determined and magically powerless ruler who, however wrongly, rarely hesitated to invade countries, to the passive, indecisive and magically powerful ruler who keeps getting kidnapped in later books. I get why she’s the target of so many kidnapping and invasion attempts. I just find myself annoyed by how many of them succeed, however temporarily.
But despite the book’s somewhat jumbled beginning and my growing exasperation, Thompson genuinely delivers here, with non stop action, clever dialogue, and a suspense and tension only heightened with the realization that most of the seemingly competent heroes, and almost all of the competent members of the Royal Court (I am not including Ozma in this listing) are all imprisoned (I am including Ozma in the imprisoned listing).
Except for Jack Pumpkinhead.
Not overly bright, and physically fragile, Jack Pumpkinhead is no one’s idea of a hero. Except, perhaps, in Oz. For in a book brimming with false expectations and nothing turning out the way anyone expects, Thompson uses Jack Pumpkinhead’s very faults and flaws, and a literal approach to dialogue, to save the day.
I had earlier mentioned Thompson’s tendency to transform her odd characters into something different, something more human. Thus, the Scarecrow find his human soul and origins, Peg Amy and Urtha become human, and the Good Witch of the North changes from an old witch to a lovely young queen. But in her last book, Thompson had begun to allow some of her odd characters to accept that what made them different, what kept them from being quite human, quite real, was no very bad thing. Here, she finally seems to accept her own lessons about the power of self-acceptance, of allowing that some of the very worst of faults can, in the end, be saving graces. The acceptance allowed her to move on to the very best of her own Oz books.
One word of warning: the slave summoned by the dinner bell is black; his master, the Red Jinn, is, well, red, but does keep other black slaves. I’ll have considerably more to say about both of them when they reappear in later books.
Mari Ness is sorry to find herself so much in agreement with one of the villains of Oz. She lives in central Florida.