Captain Salt in Oz stands out from the other canonical Oz books in one crucial respect: in the entire book, nobody, and I mean nobody, actually goes to Oz at all.
Both L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson had previously sent their characters outside of Oz, of course, frequently writing books set almost entirely outside of Oz. But even in those books, the characters had at least visited Oz for the nearly traditional end-of-book party and Oz celebrity greeting time. Not so Captain Salt in Oz, which starts on an island far from Oz, and continues with the characters sailing as far from Oz as they possibly can. Oh, sure, they agree, they might go back to Oz sometime. For Christmas, maybe. And in a further departure from the series, not a single one of the Famous Oz Celebrities makes an appearance, making this, I believe, one of only two canonical Oz books where neither Dorothy nor the Scarecrow speaks a word. (The other is The Silver Princess of Oz, which I’ll be chatting about in a couple more posts.)
It may therefore not be a surprise to hear that Captain Salt is one of the most troubling of the Oz books. It should not be a surprise to hear that although Ozma never actually appears in the book, it contains some of the worst Ozma fail yet. I’d say I’m astounded, but by this point in the series, my expectations for Ozma are quite low indeed.
Captain Salt in Oz is a direct sequel to Pirates of Oz, featuring three of that book’s characters: the charming, scholarly ex-pirate Captain Salt, the laid back king turned gourmet cook Ato, and the wise and occasionally surly Royal Read Bird Roger. Three years later (when you’re immortal, you have no need to rush), they are finally off on the mission assigned to them by Ozma: explore and colonize the islands and other lands of the Nonestic Ocean. Along the way, they rescue an initially ungrateful young king named Tandy, the ruler of Ozamaland, who has been forcibly removed from his throne and left in a cage in a jungle, and meet some yodelers. They also kidnap a few people, including a sad little jelly boy, and engage in some distressing colonizing. Let’s chat about the kidnapping first.
Captain Salt’s chief interest, after peaceful conquering, is in taking biological notes and collecting specimens. Unlike the others, he stands in awe at the sight of new lifeforms. His speeches show that he has spent the intervening years reading multiple books about natural history in preparation for the trip. For a marine biologist, however, he’s not very environmentally conscious—he orders Ato to throw the dishes overboard into the sea, to, as he says, save on the washing, in an unfortunate continuation of the deplorable tradition of using the ocean as a garbage dump. Nor is he always particularly concerned about leaving habitats—or the critters that inhabit them—in pristine condition. In one case, he helps to destroy large portions of a lovely sea forest, and in another case, cripples an innocent narwhal (Monodon monoceros) who has unluckily gotten its tusk stuck in Captain Salt’s ship.
(Marine mammal biology sidenote: Although Captain Salt takes the time to correctly (and impressively) identify the scientific classification of narwhals, going so far as to list them in the suborder Odontocetes, Thompson, regrettably enough, then calls the narwhal a fish. Oh well. I suppose we can’t always have scientific accuracy in our fairylands.)
Captain Salt’s attitudes could be said to be typical of the popular conception of 19th century scientific explorers, if not of the reality of early 20th century marine biologists. But with his zeal for collecting scientific specimens—a hobby previously focused on collecting shells—the good captain crosses a line, since this time he is collecting sentient, talking beings. A talking hippopotamus joins them willingly enough (although, as it turns out, she’s under a sort of spell) but the same cannot be said of Sally the playful Salamander (not exactly welcomed by the entire crew, given her tendency to set things on fire) or the initially terrified jellyfish boy, who belongs to an independent, literate culture (they use seaweed to create their signs). Their kidnappings are in striking contrast to previous books (where strange people either joined the various traveling groups willingly, or stayed where they were), Captain Salt’s last book, where, as noted, he merely collected shells, and even to two other incidents in this book: rescuing a kidnapped young king from a cage, and Captain Salt’s own capture by the jelly people of Seeweegia, who put him on display, attempt to feed him their own food (this goes badly), and charge admission to curious jelly people for a viewing.
Captain Salt is rescued, naturally, from a lifetime of living in a fishy zoo, but neither he, nor anyone else, including, apparently, Thompson, realizes that he and his crew are doing exactly the same thing to the jellyfish boy that they’ve captured, and giving him no hope of release. I’d have an easier time with this if I felt that at least the author was aware of the contradiction here, but I get no such sense from the text.
Far worse, however, are Captain Salt’s plans to claim the islands of the Nonestic Ocean and the lands beyond them in the name of Ozma.
“And suppose they object to being taken at all?” said Ato, beginning to pare a fat potato. “What then?”
“Well, then—er, then—” Samuel rubbed his chin reflectively. “We’ll try persuasion, my lad. We’ll explain all the advantages of coming under the flag and protection of a powerful country like Oz.”
He later adds, to further justify his imperial approach:
“And since Ozma is so clever at governing and her subjects all so happy and prosperous, the more people who come under her rule, the better.”
Oh really. Setting aside, for a moment, the many, many documented examples of Ozma’s leadership issues, Oz has offered several recent examples of unhappy, rebellious subjects and kingdoms under deep economic stress. In fact, economics appears to be one of the driving causes of Captain Salt's mission, although the explorer is careful to explain that the colonies, too, will economically benefit from colonization:
In time, fruit, foodstuffs, books and merchandise will arrive from Oz, and in return you may send back some of the sparkling crystals composing these mountains.
(If you are wondering just how all of this trading is expected to take place across the supposedly Deadly Desert surrounding Oz that will kill anyone at a touch, well, I was wondering too, until I realized that by now the Deadly Desert had been reduced to a minor inconvenience for travelers, who all simply fly, sail or tunnel around it in a thoroughly comfortable fashion.)
It perhaps escaped Thompson’s notice that the colonial economic system the good captain and Ozma are proposing is the exact economic system that the 13 American colonies had revolted against, and that during the writing of this book, the then-British colony of India was expressing a very deep unhappiness about the same economic system. It did not escape my notice that Ozma and Captain Salt are not exactly being forthcoming about their actual motivations here, nor are they explaining that this expansion effort is not particularly for the benefit of the “wild fellows” of the Nonestic Ocean. For, as we learn:
Each of the four Kingdoms in Oz shown on Samuel’s map was so dotted with smaller Kingdoms, cities, towns, villages and the holdings of ancient Knights and Barons, there was scarcely room for another castle. With young Princes growing up on every land, Roger could well sympathize with the need of Ozma for more territory.
So, population pressure, not altruism, appears to be the driving force. (Matters are probably not helped by the various inventions of Jinnicky, which have already eliminated the need for many shipboard jobs—a subtle reference to American fears that growing mechanization would lead to further unemployment.) It's an understandable fear in a country where no one can die, and where a once mostly static population had been changed into a vibrantly growing one, what with various immigrants and American moving in and the births celebrated by Thompson’s romantic couples. (Not to mention all of Billina’s little baby chickens, who, at their reproductive rate, might well be covering the entire land of Oz at this point.)
But I’m not sure that fear justifies Ozma’s imperialistic plan to take over the Nonestic Ocean. Ozma had, admittedly, not always been a pacifist: her first recorded act as Ruler of Oz had been to march into two neighboring countries with a small army. But that act had at least been framed as an altruistic attempt to restore a neighboring royal family. In later books she had taken a distinctly pacifistic approach, and even in Thompson’s books her goal had been to restore and maintain the status quo (for Thompson, almost always an aristocracy), not overtake it, as she does here. Not to mention the small problem of whether or not the citizens of Oz can remain immortal after they leave their homeland. It might be just great to finally get your own little princedom, but perhaps a little less great if you have to give up your immortality (and all of those splendid Oz parties) for it.
Even if these princes are are willing to die (and who knows? Maybe they’re tired of immortality, although now I’m really speculating) the colonization and takeover approach is unsettling, especially in contrast to Ozma’s previous approach of isolation and neutrality. Maybe she should consider the lower tax rate approach instead. (Hey, as we just saw, in fairylands, that really does lead to economic security and happiness.)
It’s a pity, because otherwise, this book would have a lot to love: a young character that actually grows and changes for the better (a major change from the previous books, where characters generally remain relatively static), the joy and the thrill of exploration, and glorious cities beneath the sea.
One more oddity, this specific to Thompson as an author: this is the first book of hers with a missing/kidnapped/transformed king that does not end with the king returning to his throne. Instead, Tandy decides to head off and help the colonization project. Yet another sign that, even with the word “Oz” in the title, Captain Salt in Oz is not really an Oz book at all.
Mari Ness has occasionally made plans to colonize her kitchen, but the plans haven’t gone all that well. She lives in central Florida.