Jun 24 2010 2:26pm

Lacking Purpose in Fairyland: The Scalawagons of Oz

For years, I heard legends of an Oz book so terrible, even diehard Oz fans had trouble finishing it; so terrible, that other authors rushed to pick up pens and typewriters in a desperate attempt to save Oz. Not surprisingly, it was terribly difficult to find. None of my many childhood libraries had it. Interlibrary loans didn’t have it. Research libraries didn’t have it. And yet, its legend persisted: it would, I was warned darkly, wipe my mind.

Naturally I had to track it down.

And now I have read it, and I have to tell you, good, it isn’t.

Its title: The Scalawagons of Oz.

The chief problem with The Scalawagons of Oz is that the book doesn’t really have a plot. Or, rather, it sort of has one, but most of the time, no one, and I include author, characters, and readers in this, can be bothered to remember what it is, or care much what it is. The plot sort of has to do with a little Bell-Snickle, who for inexplicable reasons likes to do mischievous things and be mysterious. And it sort of has to do with the Scalawagons: magical cars invented by the Wizard of Oz that can think, if we stretch the definition of “think,” speed along to any destination without crashing, and provide excellent lunches. Yum. In the only real connection between the two plots, the Bell-Snickle sets off something that makes the Scalawagons disappear, but, to be honest, I’d completely forgotten this by the time the Bell-Snickle reappeared after an absence of several chapters.

Which leads to the book’s other problem: none of it lingers in the memory for more than a few minutes. Much of the potentially memorable stuff—the partially sentient houses with their tendency to attack, the rather mean and untruthful clocks—were already seen in the previous book, and feel rather tired, if somewhat more coherent. 

Pacing is another problem. The Wizard and his magic cars disappear in the first half of the book, and, well, no one really cares much, and then they reappear about midway through, and then everyone goes swimming, and then, Neill suddenly seems to remember that he really does need to fill an entire book, so everyone gets into the little magic cars to fill up some more chapters, and things sort of happen, none of them particularly interesting, let alone suspenseful. And, given that none of the characters seem to take the “threat” of the Bell-Snickle seriously, it’s hard for a reader to get involved.

The only somewhat unifying element: the themes of work and time. Neill’s earlier concept of dishonest, disobedient clocks has been expanded to include a bad tempered clock who dislikes unpunctual people. (I can’t help wondering if Neill is projecting a little here.) And although a significant part of the nonexistent plot involves going on a trip to a magical bathing spa (complete with singing swimming suits) and enjoying a lot of picnics and lazily traveling by magical cars that do your driving for you, a significant number of words are devoted to the concept that everyone, even bell fairies and mysterious Bell-Snickles must work. It is, to say the least, a rather mixed message, further undercut when a little Misfit, who has been working far harder than anyone else, is exiled from Oz for...being an annoying workaholic. So much for the unifying theme and moral message.

I also don’t get why Ozma thinks it’s a great idea to send walking trees out to fight dragon-induced forest fires (this is less interesting than I just made it sound) but it is becoming clear that I may never understand just why Ozma remains in power.

Oddly, despite these flaws, Scalawagons actually reads a bit better than The Wonder City of Oz—the sentences are less choppy, the book is less inconsistent, and it’s sort of entertaining to realize that you can be living in the most wondrous palace in the most marvelous fairyland in the world and still want to escape on a little swimming trip, even if you have to wear a singing swimming suit. And the book has some bits of awesomeness, expected and unexpected: the illustrations. The sudden appearance of capital letters to tell us “BUT THE WIZARD HAD VANISHED,” followed by the realization that no one really seems to care or at least feels the need to bother to do anything about it. Aunt Em yelling at everyone. Getting rid of that pesky worker who keeps insisting on doing everything better and more intensely than you can. But, alas, none of these make the book terribly readable or memorable, and I can’t recommend it, even to Oz fans. 

Also, this is a difficult book to track down for a reasonable cost just now. As I mentioned, it’s not readily available at most libraries. (My own local library, extremely helpful with other Oz books, including the somewhat hard to find Jack Snow books, failed here.) As far as I can tell it has not been recently reprinted, and since it’s still under copyright I think it’s unlikely to appear in a cheap digital edition any time soon. You may be able to find copies of the book on eBay or elsewhere, but, to be honest, if you want a better idea of Neill’s manic ideas, try Wonder City of Oz, and if you want a (somewhat) better Neill book, wait for the next in the series, Lucky Bucky in Oz.

Mari Ness would rather like a car that would just drive her around and provide cookies. She lives in central Florida.

Noneo Yourbusiness
1. Longtimefan
You are a brave and persitent lady. I salute you.

Hopefully the next book is more memorable and delightful.

It seems a dubious accomplishment to make walking trees fighting dragon induced forest fires less interesting than it would sound.

Sounds like some tension and pathos abounding.

I would rather have friendly cars than mean clocks.
James C. Wallace II
2. James C. Wallace II
With Magician of Oz and Shadow Demon of Oz now out and available, you would find either to be a far sight better than the horror story which is The Scalawagons of Oz. And by early next year, Family of Oz will complete the trilogy.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@Longtimefan - After some consideration, I have decided that all clocks are, by nature, unfriendly.

@James C. Wallace - I wouldn't necessarily call Scalawagons a horror story (although I admit others do) - just not a very interesting or readable book.

In any case, I'm just covering the Famous Forty here - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the sequels published by Reilly and Lee. has been extremely tolerant of my obsession so far, but let's not push them too much!
James C. Wallace II
4. Teka Lynn
I vaguely remember this book as FREAKISHLY hyper. Jenny "I has hat shop" Jump and Number "Whistling Breeches" Nine are fairly prominent characters, right? Or am I disremembering?

And lots of Krazy Klown Karz, of course.
James C. Wallace II
5. ericshanower
I read this first of the three Neill books as a teen-ager. I was confused and dismayed by how different it was from the other Oz books I'd read by Baum, Thompson, and the McGraws. I absolutely agree that both Wonder City and Lucky Bucky are better reads (better being definitely a relative term).

I do like the Bell-Snickle in concept if not in execution, partly because it's never clear just what the heck the thing really is.

Books of Wonder published an edition of Scalawagons in the 1990s. (They reprinted all three official Neill books and published the fourth.) I assume it's still in print, but it may not be. However, it should be pretty easy to get one's hands on.

Thanks for all these Oz book essays, Mari.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@4 Teka Lynn - Jenny Jump and Number Nine are in this book, yes, but I wouldn't call it freakishly hyper, especially given that everyone stops for a nice and lengthy vacation right in the middle of the book, and nobody really reacts to any of the "crises" that pop up. You might be confusing it with Wonder City which is definitely freakishly hyper.

The little Misfit is pretty hyper, though. And he gets kicked out of Oz for working so hard and trying to be good because it's so annoying to everyone else :( Sad but realistic.

@5 Eric Shanower - Ah, I didn't realize Books of Wonder had reprinted this one too. They have both both Wonder City and Lucky Bucky for sale at their site, but for whatever reason, they are no longer selling Scalawagons. (Maybe they sold out?) The only edition I found on eBay or Abebooks was the first edition, which is not to say that someone won't be selling a copy of the Books of Wonder edition in the future at a more reasonable cost.
James C. Wallace II
7. Xamyul of Florin
I'm probably crazy, but I like John R. Neill's Oz. It is surreal and comforting at the same time. Houses that are alive, scalawagons, and a wooden whale that each, in some fashion, protects us, feeds us, and provides us with a numinous companion. Without getting too Erich Neumann-y, these are wonderful creations! LFB, RPT and JRN each saw bits of Oz that together make up the marvelous land that we have come to love. I would urge people to read Neill's works and judge for themselves. Not everybody will enjoy them of course, but better to take the chance than to miss something that might just speak to you in ways you did not expect.

Thank you so much, Mari Ness, for providing this great Oz resource!!
James C. Wallace II
8. absoluteabsence
I love the John Neil Oz books, they are fun and magical and while they are not great art I find them very entertaining. John Neil's Oz is a place I would love to visit and stay a while. Don't be so serious folks, it's a kid's book and it's not James Joyce, it's not Hemingway or Goethe or Faulkner - it's for kids to enjoy - a place to dream and have fun.
James C. Wallace II
9. John Cowan
I haven't read this book, but surely the Bell-Snickel is originally Belsnickel, a scary version of Santa Claus from the German Palatinate, still surviving in Pennsylvania Dutch country (Neill was from Philadelphia) and western Canada. The "Nickel" part is a diminutive of Nicholas, a mixture of the saint and the Devil; the first part has to do with beating (he carries a switch to use on the bad kids).
James C. Wallace II
10. Joe Bongiorno
For me, the biggest problem with this book is just how callous and cruel Ozma, the Wizard, Jenny... well, almost everyone is!

Without a single crime committed, save to block out the sun at their beach party, the Bell-snickle is subject to having his toe and ear CUT OFF WITH A SCISSOR! As if this isn't egregious enough, not only does Ozma approve of this behavior by Jenny, but she hands out four more scissors to Dorothy, Trot, Betsy and Jellia and tells them to "cut up as much as they like"!

This isn't remotely the same Ozma as the one we saw in The Emerald City of Oz who said:

"No one has the right to destroy any living creatures, however evil they may be, or to hurt them or make them unhappy."

By contrast, the very insecure Bell-Snickle doesn't commit a single act of violence, and he has a few opportunities to, specifically when he comes across Jenny--the very woman who just cut off his two limbs--as she's sleeping! But all he does is take her handbag, and that because he remembers she's got those nasty scissors in them. Even when he plots becoming king of Oz, his sole thought is to ban the use of scissors.

Stealing handbags being a major crime, even in Oz, when they finally capture him, Jenny subjects him to humiliation; she forcibly reveals him, then she publicly bathes him, and if that isn't emasculating enough, she then parades him through the Emerald City with everyone jeering and mocking him (especially Scraps). If he hoped to get better treatment at Ozma's hand, he's miscalculated again. Ozma--whose been enjoying watching the girls pursue him on the Magic Picture--decides Jenny's done such a bang-up job, she can decide what his final fate will be! Thankfully, Jenny's forgotten about cutting him up into pieces, and figures instead she'll shrink him into a rubber-stamp so that he can be "useful"!

The Mifkit, meanwhile, doesn't even get an opportunity to plead his case. When he demands he be given his body back, his slang speech (which amounts to the usage of contractions) is found to be so offensive to the ears of Ozma and Aunt Em (of all people), that he "the little savage" has to go!

And we wonder why Oz gets attacked so much!

Apart from that bit out-of-character insanity, I do like the scalawagons themselves. What's not to like: cute sapient cars that can fly, are powered by pelican juice, and make you food!

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