Authors never could resist the thrill of bringing Americans into the magic of Oz—perhaps because Oz had been introduced through the eyes of an American child in the very first book. In The Gnome King of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson again succumbed to this thrill, bringing an American boy named Peter, from Philadelphia, in what would be the first of his three appearances in Oz.
Peter differs from these other children in several significant ways. Although he certainly plans to return home (with treasure!), he is not questing for a home, either his old one, or a new one. And he is the first American child visitor with a distinct interest in finding treasure and plans for spending it. (He wants to buy a motorcycle.) He is also the first one to arrive alone, without any sort of companion. (Dorothy had travelled with various small animals; Betsy had Hank the Mule; Trot, Cap’n Bill; Button-Bright, Trot and Cap’n Bill. Even Bob Up had that horrible clown.) With the possible exception of Button-Bright, he is also the first with decidedly questionable morals, quite apart from the treasure hopes. He begins the book by planning to steal the money given to him by his grandfather for balloon shopping, since he wants marbles and ice cream instead. This is the decision that leads him to Oz, a country he’s somewhat familiar with, since in a nice meta-moment he has read some of the Oz books.
And very much unlike all of the other children, his first travels to the world of Oz are done in the company of a villain.
As the title gives away, The Gnome King of Oz features the return of Ruggedo, that small vengeful gnome who hass never yet given up his hope of conquering Oz. It also features the first appearance of pirates, or, more strictly speaking, hope of pirates, since what we see is a wrecked pirate ship and pirate treasure. But everyone knows, where there’s pirate treasure, there’s bound to be pirates. Right? (Right. Hang on for a few more books.) It also features another tiny Oz kingdom and the worst Ozma fail we’ve seen for some books. (In an alarming omen, Ozma begins by having problems selecting her own curtains without assistance. It gets much, much worse.)
The tiny Oz kingdom in question is the kingdom of Patch, home to the Quilties, a people with a serious issue: after years of hard work, they typically fall apart into tiny quilt pieces, get placed into a bag, to pop out only years later, refreshed and ready for more work. Quite naturally, this turns them into Cross Patches. (Thompson never met a pun she would refuse to put on paper.) Their rulers have very short between-bag lives indeed—and worse, must spend their entire ruling lives doing domestic chores at a breakneck pace.
(Incidentally, that old Oz concept of working half the time, and playing half time, has either been completely abandoned here, or applies, as I’ve often thought it might, only to inhabitants of the Emerald City.)
Not surprisingly, no one wants to be the new ruler of Patch—so much so, that new rulers have to be captured by force. Taking pity on the poor cross inhabitants, the golden spool that selects the new ruler decides to leave the country. The spool almost selects a cow (who responds with a threatening “moo!”) before alighting on that lover of leisure, the Patchwork Girl. Initially delighted to be named queen, she is considerably less delighted to learn that she has to cook. (In a very revealing aside, she points out that “Ozma never does a stroke of work.” I’d suspected this, but verification is always cheering.) Her subjects are even less delighted to discover that cooking is not one of her skills.
The discovery of a cheerful bear named Grumpy slightly improves The Patchwork Girl’s life, but she is still not in the best of moods when Peter and Ruggedo arrive using the pirates’ magical treasure. It does not take long to discover that Ruggedo, as always, is bent on conquest—and only the Patchwork Girl, Peter, and Grumpy the bear can stop him.
Off they go—although this being Oz, and particularly this being three of the least responsible people in it, their rescue attempt is derailed by storytelling and visits to a city made of soap and a second city filled with constant music and singing. (The only way to leave the musical city—singing out of tune.) Indeed, the three need to be reminded of their rescuing duties by a random oztrich met along the way. (That’s not a typo: an oztrich is sort of an ostrich, except that it is green and talks and carries its egg on rescue missions and seriously needs to reconsider its parenting priorities.) And it’s a good thing too, because we’re about to meet the so-far runner up for Worst Ozma Fail Ever:
“Oh! Oh! Someone is trying to steal my magic belt!” wailed the little fairy, swaying dizzily from side to side.
Ozma. Ozma. You are currently WEARING that belt, an all powerful magic belt that can instantly transform anyone and anything and equally instantly send anyone and anything anywhere in both the Oz and outside worlds. Use the belt! And then, remind me how you haven’t lost your throne yet.
(I’m not particularly fond of the Magic Belt’s use as a deux ex machina, but I’m even less fond of a scene depicting its owner as helpless while she has it on.)
It does not help matters that Ozma has to be saved by a nine year old and an oztrich egg that is just hours away from cracking into a little baby oztrich. It should surprise no one by now that she has to be reminded to provide a gift for the litte baby oztrich, or that shortly after the baby’s arrival the father oztrich, finally seized with a sense of parental responsibility (no, I don’t why he allowed his unborn child to be used as a weapon either, and yes, I’m pretty disturbed) bolts out of the Emerald City as fast as possible to keep the little baby from getting corrupted. Seriously. I mean, he phrases it as “I must be going. This excitement is very bad for my child.” But we all know what he really means.
But I digress.
Perhaps not surprisingly after all this, Peter chooses not to stay in Oz. As he explains, his baseball team and his grandfather need him. (He seems slightly more concerned about the baseball team.) But I have wondered if perhaps this is also because Peter's morals do not quite fit the Oz world. As Ruggedo notes, Peter is not that much different than the Gnome King (except for the wanting to conquer Oz part). While generally honest, he can be greedy and deceitful (the money incident is only the first example), traits that are rarely rewarded in Oz.
But since this is Oz, Peter is considerably luckier than most travelers to fairylands. He returns both unscathed and wealthier: Ozma, perhaps in an attempt to make up for previous blunders, sends a few bags of pirate gold home with him. Proving, perhaps, that a sojourn in fairyland really can earn rewards.
One word of warning: The colorful soap people are served by slaves formed from black or tar soap. I believe that here, as in her next use of black slaves (in Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz), Thompson intended to evoke the Arabian Nights (with references to salaams and the Sultan of Suds) not American slavery. Nor are the soapy slaveholders presented as kindly or admirable (just very clean), but rather as nasty people the characters are desperate to escape. I’m not sure how much these caveats matter.
Mari Ness is just as glad that she does not need to be put into a bag and stuffed into a closet to recover when exhaustion hits. She lives in central Florida.