Let’s just take a look at that title again, shall we? Pirates. In Oz. Pirates! Alas, no ninjas. Also, no rockets in this book, but we can’t have everything.
Honesty compels me to admit that it does take a few chapters for the pirates to make an appearance, and that when they do show up, they are more like the Peter Pan sorts of pirates than the Jack Sparrow sorts of pirates, touched with a distinct dash of Douglas Fairbanks at his most swashbuckling. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.) Honesty also compels to me admit that it does take some time for the pirates to actually enter Oz. But let us not quibble too much. Pirates. Oz. And a flying pig. This is going to be marvelous.
Pirates in Oz starts with that reliable villain, Ruggedo the once and not future Gnome King. Much like many homeless people during the Great Depression (ongoing while this book was written and published), Ruggedo has been forced to wander about with a sign begging for assistance hanging from his neck. Oddly, much of his begging (and related stealing) has happened in Oz, a country usually depicted with a bounty of food—lunches and hot breakfasts grow on trees—but perhaps Ruggedo is unwilling to pick things from trees. In any case, a depressed Ruggedo has managed to fly back to the countries outside Oz, in yet another example of the undeadliness of the supposed Deadly Desert, a theme this book will revisit. Wandering around, he runs into Memankypoo, a country of utterly silent people who make him king on the entirely erroneous assumption that he won’t do anything, the quality they like in a king. (They sent their last king into the sea because he kept attempting to do “kingly” things.)
Intriguingly, the silent people do communicate—though texting. A point I missed the first time I read this book, since, cough, that was before texting was around. Ruth Plumly Thompson is rarely given credit for anticipating technological innovations the way Baum did, but she certainly hit on something here.
But before Ruggedo can get too bored at his do nothing, silent job, he stumbles across an evil Clock Man who communicates by using a little cuckoo that flies out at timely moments to deliver rather nasty little messages. I suppose that a kingdom that uses texting would have use for a cyborg, for a cyborg is exactly what the Clock Man is: a tall skinny human with a clock and a cuckoo for a head. Ok, so he’s a disturbing sort of cyborg. Fortunately, before any of us can get too disturbed, along come the annoyed subjects of Octagon Island—and pirates!
The pirates are, to say the least, a bit peeved at their leader, the great navigator Captain Salt, a scholarly and polite sort of pirate who finds it hard to lose his temper and remember what pirating is all about. Endearingly, he even attempts to pay for the books and supplies he’s pirating away, and once he stops in the middle of a pirate raid to enjoy a delightfully geeky chat about, no kidding, conch shells, with, also no kidding, the Duke of Dork. He so enjoys the conversation that he leaves the Duke with a banana goat. Indeed, he is, at heart, more marine biologist than pirate, continually distracted with the joy of collecting specimens. As you might imagine, this sort of thing is an occupational hazard for a pirate captain, since the pirates want to do, well, pirating. Non-scholarly types might even sympathize when the pirates hit him over the head and steal away his second best ship.
King Ato of Octagon Island, though, can definitely sympathize with Captain Salt, since he has a few leadership problems of his own. He shouldn’t, since is described as “nicely balanced”—although since the population includes exactly 40 women, 60 children, and 80 men, I’m thinking something is up with the sex life of this island, something we might not want to look into too deeply. The island also has eight courtiers to match the eight servitors, eight farmers, eight fishermen...you get the point, but I'm trying to figure out why having eight people to do little but hang around counts as a nicely balanced workforce. In any case, the islanders are less worried about the useless courtiers than about King Ato because, as they point out, instead of, say, conquering or any doing any real work, he just wants to sit around and listen to stories. (He comes off, I must say, as another very sympathetic and endearing character.) And with that, the people of Octagon decide to revolt and cruelly desert the poor king, leaving him alone with only his bird, Roger.
Deserted and/or hit on the head, Captain Salt, Ato and Roger the bird decide to join forces and Learn How To Be Tough. In this endeavour, they are helped by the arrival of Peter from Philadelphia, who knows plenty of pirate language, or at least has seen some Douglas Fairbanks movies, information he gleefully passes on to the now wannabe pirates. In a continuance of the “let gourmet cooking become your second fairyland career!” theme, Ato becomes the ship’s cook. As their adventures continue, they pick up Pigasus, a flying pig. Not that he’s exactly ideal transportation—whoever sits on Pigasus ends up spouting verses.
Meanwhile, the annoyed Octagon Islanders and the pirates gleefully agree to join Ruggedo in his latest Let’s Invade Oz Because That Idea’s Worked So Well So Far plan. The unruly pirates, admittedly, need some additional threatening, and the women of Octagon Island are not too impressed with Ruggedo’s looks. Off everybody heads to Oz with plenty of “me hearties” and “ho hos.” Alas, no rum. I am crushed.
Can the others stop him in time? (Because, by now, I think we all know that Ozma cannot. And that new security system mentioned in the last book? Forget about that, too.)
I have to confess: this is the book that redeems Thompson’s Oz for me (although I’m also quite fond of some of its successors.) Considerably better than her earlier work, this is an inspired, tightly plotted book further linked by themes of distrust and disappointment in leaders, and the conflicts that arise when the goals of leaders and followers differ. (Including getting hit on the head a lot.) Thompson’s essential conservatism shines through here: things do not go well, she suggests, when people remove their leaders, forcibly or not. Every group to do so in this book ends up suffering to one extent or another. The Menankypoos are run over by pirates. The Octagon Islanders are turned into stones. And the pirates—
Alas, me hearties, for the pirates face Ozma without a bit of rum involved, and ‘tis an unfortunate encounter, it is. For, ye see, me hearties, even a book containing the greatest of pirates can also contain more than a bit of Ozma fail, and so it is here. Ozma, who has yet to explore all of the little countries and places of Oz—a task ye’ll remember she mentioned needing to do all the way back in Glinda of Oz, statin’ that it was even one of her chief responsibilities, even, sends off the kindly Captain Salt to conquer—yes, conquer—and colonize all of the islands of the Nonestic Ocean. Sounds even worse than a spot of honest piracy to me. I can only image the responses of her soon-to-be subjects, especially after they hear a bit more of her reign, if you understand me. Savvy?
(We’ll have much more to say about this colonization project later.)
But it gets worse, me hearties, much worse, when she unilaterally decides, without consulting with no one, mind ye, to transform all the rest of the pirates into sea birds, on the assumption that this way they can still enjoy the sea they love without harming any of the good people of the Nonestic parts. Ye can see that Ozma seems to be missing much of the point of bein’ a pirate here. Second, she clearly has never attempted to enjoy a jolly little picnic at the beach with a few of dem sea gulls around. Trust me, those birds, they be as fully capable of doing harm and theft as any pirate. Most critically, this follows a rather long series of books that’s been presenting transformations of this kind as a rather a bad thing, with characters desperate to return to their true form. And need I remind ye that just recently, faced with an evildoer far worse than any pirate, who had enchanted, imprisoned and transformed two separate kingdoms for five hundred years, that Ozma had responded by punishing him with mere house arrest? While we poor pirates become birds with no chance of a trial? Oh, Ozma.
But, always ignoring Ozma’s sudden imperialistic ambitions, this book has much more to love: the cranky and not at all jolly Roger, a flying pig to save the day, and the lesson that, even in a fairyland, Nobody can, indeed, say no to a king. (It makes sense in the book.) Although I admit to some prejudice here: any book featuring a marine biologist trying to be a pirate is likely to win my heart.
Final note: more scholarly sources than I state that “dork” first came into use in the 1960s. I am delighted to be able to suggest that said sources may be ever so slightly wrong, and at the very least, dorks had their first taste of nobility all the way back to 1931. It’s a very comforting thought.
Clearly, even hours of Douglas Fairbanks and other fine pirate movies have not taught Mari Ness how to talk like a pirate. She lives in central Florida.