Perhaps dispirited by their experiences with generally unknown authors for their Oz series, publishers Reilly and Lee took a new approach for the 40th (and, as it would turn out, final) book of the series: hiring the Newberry Award winning novelist and children’s author Eloise Jarvis McGraw, who chose to co-write her book with her daughter Lauren McGraw. The choice turned out to be fortunate indeed: Merry Go Round in Oz is one of the very best of the Oz books, a fast paced, hilarious book worth seeking out by Oz fans and non-fans alike. My initial worries that this book might not live up to my fond childhood memories soon vanished: I still found myself laughing out loud as I turned its pages, and I was sorry when the book ended.
The book interweaves three tales: of young Robin Brown, an orphan from Oregon; of the three National Disasters that inflict the noble kingdom of Halidom; and, er, the quest of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion for some awesome Easter Eggs. So, ok, not all the plots are equally riveting—although I did like the bunnies. And, surprisingly enough, all of these seemingly unconnected plots turn out to be very closely intertwined indeed. Even the bunnies.
Of the characters, young Robin may be the worst off: shy and inarticulate, he’s not very good at making friends, explaining himself, or fitting in with his well-meaning, but noisy, foster family. He suspects the family doesn’t like him very much, and won’t miss him if he leaves. No wonder that he seizes the chance to ride a quite ordinary merry-go-round in quite ordinary Oregon, and reaches up to grab the brass ring for a chance at a free ride. The successful grab sends him and the little merry go round horse he is riding careening into Oz.
(Incidentally, this points up one real decline in contemporary society: I spent years looking for similar rings on merry go rounds, and never found one. I’m not even sure that they make ordinary grabbable rings anymore, let alone the magical sorts that send you to Oz. Sigh.)
This, and the discovery that the little merry go round horse, called, (hold your surprise), Merry, is now alive and can talk, rather confuses Robin, a situation not helped by the discovery that Merry can only ride round and round; straight lines confuse her. (We’ve all been there.)
Meanwhile, over in Halidom, things are going from rather bad to really worse. Halidom had been doing quite well as a supplier of luxury heraldry supplies to all of Oz’s tiny little kingdoms (our first indication, in 40 books, that any of these kingdoms perform any positive economic function whatsoever). But, alas, alas, Halidom’s prosperity was dependent on three little magical circlets (yet another lesson in the critical importance of diversifying your assets, even in a fairyland), which have all, gulp, disappeared. The circlets grant dexterity, intelligence, and strength; their disappearance leaves every Halidom native exhausted, clumsy, and unable to think. This is no way to start a quest.
And yet, the Prince decides to quest anyway (as I mentioned, thinking isn’t a strong suit with him at the moment) taking along his rather arrogant horse and a very cute Flittermouse, as well as two friends not from Halidom, and thus unaffected by this circlet: his page Fess and a Unique Unicorn.
In a roundabout fashion (cough), all three plots end up centering (ahem) on the town of Roundelay, a town which has focused so hard on quality that they have inadvertently manufactured themselves right out of business: their products never break or decay, and thus never need to be replaced. The goods? Well, round things, of course.
So many things make this book a delight: the sly jokes, delightful dialogue, the Cowardly Lion’s horrified response upon meeting Genuinely Good Children (scarier than they might sound); Roundelay’s economic jokes and inept and delightfully absurd attempts at rebranding; the likeable villains; the way nearly everyone gets to help solve or contribute to the Halidom quest; and the decidedly satisfactory resolution, wherein all of our circling plots turn out to be linked together quite closely indeed. (Even the bunnies!)
And—don’t fall over in shock—almost no Ozma fail. Unless you count her decision to delegate her Easter Egg shopping to a friend. Okay, so maybe some minor Ozma fail. But after this, Ozma arrives with useful advice, a satisfactory action plan, ready to mete out appropriate justice. Maybe Queen Lurline replaced the old Ozma with this useful doppledanger. I guess we’ll never know.
To counter this surprising departure from Oz history, the book does return to an old L. Frank Baum motif: questioning traditional gender roles. Unusually for Oz, Halidom has very distinct ideas on what men should do, and what women should do, and Lady Annelet is not allowed to join the quest for the circlets. (This would have bothered me more had she not been hampered by the same clumsiness, weakness and inability to think that plagued the entire kingdom, and had Prince Gules and Fess not warmly welcomed the very feminine Unicorn and the always practical Dorothy on their quest.) A bit jarring in a series where girls had almost always (even in the notable exception of The Hungry Tiger of Oz the segregation by gender occurs outside of Oz) had an equal share of opportunity and adventure.
And yet, those assigned gender roles are, as it turns out, the partial cause of Halidom’s downfall (along with the bunnies): the book’s chief villain has been sneaking around and doing bad things because he—and it’s critical that he’s a he—is terrified that people will doubt his masculinity if they discover just how much he loves to cook and eat pie. (It’s apparently seriously excellent pie.) As Dorothy notes, if the poor man had just felt free to be himself, all might have been well. Or, at least better, since two of the circlets would still have been missing.
Overall, the book can be seen as an argument against holding to static roles and refusing change: not just Halidom, but Roundelay, the Good Children, and View Halloo all harm themselves or others by refusing change or any threats to the status quo. It’s a surprisingly subversive message, harking back to the Baum books, especially in a book that outwardly appears to celebrate aspects of the very traditional culture of the British aristocracy (hunting, heraldry and so on), however humorously.
But the story that lingers is that of Robin, who in all his various foster homes has never found a place where he belongs. In Oz...well, I’ll just say that magical things can and do happen in Oz. Even in places where people are desperately chasing the world’s greatest dessert. (And if that isn’t justification for evil doings, I don’t know what is.)
(Although as an adult, it did occur to me to hope that Ozma sent some magical message over to Oregon to ensure that Robin’s well meaning foster parents didn’t end up in jail on charges related to his disappearance. This seems to be a more mature, thoughtful Ozma. Let us hope.)
Speaking of Ozma fail, the series summary:
- Total number of books: 40
- Number of books in which Ozma does not appear and is not mentioned: 1 (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
- Number of books in which Ozma does not appear and manages to fail anyway: 1 (Captain Salt in Oz)
- Number of books in which Ozma appears but does not have time to fail because she only appears in the last few pages and is still recovering from that whole transformation thing: 1 (The Marvelous Land of Oz)
- Number of books with minor Ozma fail (i.e, not leading to gross injustice, kidnapping, an attack on the Emerald City, war or genocide): 15
- Number of books with major Ozma fail (i.e, leading to gross injustice, kidnapping, an attack on the Emerald City, war or genocide): 18
- Number of books with no Ozma fail, making me wonder exactly what series I was reading: 4 (The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Royal Book of Oz, The Shaggy Man of Oz, Merry Go Round in Oz)
Fail rate: 85%
I...don’t even know what to say.
Merry Go Round of Oz was the last of the “official” Oz books. (Some Oz fans also include six additional books written by the Royal Historians and later published by the International Wizard of Oz Club, Books of Wonder, and Hungry Tiger Press, in this “official” list, but I couldn’t find any consensus on this.) Oz publishers Reilly and Lee were bought out by the Henry Regnery Co, which in turn was bought out by McGraw Hill, which in turn jumped out of the Oz publishing business altogether to focus on textbooks.
But if its publishers abandoned Oz, fans and writers did not. Oz books proliferated (and continue to proliferate), both with books seeking to stay true to canon (however inconsistent that canon), and books that upended the series altogether, of which the best known is (arguably) Geoffrey Maguire’s Wicked series. A tribute, I think, to the zaniness, the inconsistencies, and wonders opened by L. Frank Baum and the Royal Historians of Oz, in a land always filled with adventure and the unexpected.
And, as if to offer proof of the continued power of Oz to inspire writers and artists, just over the weekend, Eric Shanower and Scottie Young brought home some well deserved Eisner Awards at Comic-Con for their adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I love knowing that I’ll never know what Oz will bring us next.
Making it through this entire series has been wildly entertaining, and I want to thank everyone that has read and commented on these posts along with me, particularly those that spoke up in Ozma’s defense, those that left insightful comments on Baum’s manuscripts and writing techniques, and those who passionately argued about the illustrations. (We should have a Denslow-Neill cage match!)
Mari Ness lives in central Florida near a large alligator-infested lake, not too far from the magical lands of a certain talking Mouse. Her fiction work has appeared in numerous publications, and she can be followed on Twitter or on the disorganized blog she keeps at mariness.livejournal.com. Her two adorable cats were of no assistance whatsoever in the writing of these posts.