The International Wizard of Oz Club’s return to Oz in the 1970s was successful enough to allow them to turn to the last of the Royal Historians, mother-daughter team Eloise and Lauren McGraw, for another Oz chronicle. Thus, after an absence of nearly twenty years, the McGraws, responsible for one of the best of the Oz books, The Merry Go Round in Oz, found themselves in Oz once more. This time, perhaps haunted by all of the Ozma fail I’ve chronicled here, they chose to return to that tried and true plot: Ozma is in trouble yet again, having seemingly vanished from the Emerald City. Yes. Again. If ever a ruler was crying out for a nice GPS tracking device, Ozma is that ruler. (Surely they have something of the sort in the vast magical warehouses of the Emerald City?)
But, to their credit, the McGraws did try a new twist on this tale. For once, Ozma has not been imprisoned or kidnapped by a jealous enemy taking advantage of her continued lack of basic security measures, but has disappeared thanks to acts of kindness and entrepreneurship.
Who knew that doing the right thing could be so dangerous?
The act of entrepreneurship: a small girl attempting to make and sell limeade for money—limeade accidentally made from the waters of the the Forbidden Fountain of Oz. One sip of these waters brings about instant and complete amnesia—a convenient plot trick L. Frank Baum had used to rescue himself from a narrative hole back in The Emerald City of Oz, and now used by the McGraws for an equally convenient plot trick, as Ozma kindly and sympathetically buys limeade from the little girl. (It might have been still kinder and more sympathetic to remove an instant amnesia causing device from the city altogether, but perhaps, considering the ongoing lack of a competent city defense system and an endless stream of invaders, Ozma figures that keeping some sort of defense system around, even one capable of hurting herself and her own citizens, is a wise move.)
This act, of course, allows Ozma to be put into realistic physical and mental danger. She is, after all (at least in theory) a powerful fairy with access to several formidable magical items, including the Nome King’s Magic Belt, a convenient deux ex machina device that can get any Oz characters out of any jams. As other commentators pointed out in some of my earlier posts, this very power immediately creates difficulties with any plot, forcing writers to come up with ever more ludicrous methods of incapacitating Ozma or sending her on various vacations, making her look ever more incompetent, however badly this reflects on the overall picture of her leadership abilities. Thanks to the Forbidden Fountain, Ozma can forget about her Magic Belt entirely—even as she accidentally takes it with her, ensuring that no other character can use it either. This has the added advantage of allowing the McGraws to cheat just a little when, for plot reasons, they need a wish to work—Ozma just happens to be touching her belt at that moment, and happens not to be touching the belt when one of her wishes would screw up the plot. I did say it was cheating, just a little.
The McGraws also cleverly arrange for Ozma to just happen to be transformed into an insect at the very moment her friends in the Emerald City just happen to be looking for her in the Magic Picture, instantly rendering the all powerful Magic Picture entirely useless. And even Glinda’s Book of Records proves unhelpful: apparently the complete memory loss of the Ruler of Oz is not an event worth mentioning. We should perhaps not focus too much on what this means. Unfindable by magic, the amnesiac Ozma is off—disguised as a boy (when, that is, not in insect form) by the simple expedient of putting her hair in a cap.
The gender disguise is partly a clever reference to Ozma’s first appearance as a boy back in The Marvelous Land of Oz, and partly a way for Ozma, now convinced that she must be guilty of some criminal behavior, to hide herself from other searchers. If I am mildly skeptical that a mere change in hairstyle and clothing would be enough to render Ozma unrecognizable to nearly everyone (Jack Pumpkinhead, of all people, easily sees through the disguise.) I suppose it does say something that no one can recognize Ozma once her trademark poppies have vanished from her hair. Perhaps she should try different hair arrangements now and again. Or, you know, leave the city so her subjects know what she looks like, whatever her hairstyle.
Ozma, of course, does not travel alone—few ever do in Oz—quickly finding two companions in Lambert, a young lamb who hates being white and would rather be purple, and Toby the highwayman. Toby is not, it must be admitted, a particularly skilled highwayman, but his very presence on Ozian roads indicate that Ozma has not been doing the best of jobs with road security. Nor is he operating that far from the wealthy capital. Ah, Ozma fail. Good to have you back again.
(I cannot help but wonder if the character of Lambert was at all inspired or influenced by “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion,” a Disney cartoon released in 1951, well before this book, or if the authors just fell into the natural tendency to call a lamb “Lambert.” Regardless, I do know that the Disney song was stuck in my head for some time after reading this book.)
This is a quiet Ozma, unsure of herself, attempting to find her way in a strange world as both boy and girl. It’s an intriguing, fascinating portrait: what happens to a fairy queen who cannot remember who she is?
And yet, I can’t help noting that this is a fairy queen who feels safer as a boy than as a girl, in a land that had, until this book, proven welcoming to girl explorers, and in a book where none of the other girls (Dorothy, Betsy and Trot) dare to set off alone either. The one girl who does wander off alone is the one responsible for mixing up that disastrous limeade.
Perhaps the McGraws thought, consciously or not, that the subversive gender messages they had placed in their early 1950s book, and the still more subversive messages in Baum’s books, were less necessary after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s. But it might have been fun to have an Ozma who chose to be a boy just for fun, or, who chose another, more feminine disguise when disguise was needed—instead of needing to turn into a boy for safety.
And speaking of the limeade—it’s another indication that money most definitely returned to Oz, however hard Baum had tried to eliminate it. I suppose it also says something that paying for limeade is what leads directly to Ozma’s trauma; perhaps the ruler might have been better off continuing to keep money out of her kingdom. But it says still more that, after several books where danger occurred thanks to acts of carelessness, evil, or uncontrollable forces, this time it happens mostly because Ozma wants to be nice. To have an act of kindness result in danger is an odd message, indeed.
Forbidden Fountain is a charming book and an easy read, featuring the return of several other beloved Oz characters in at least cameo appearances. And the McGraws provide the important detail that peanut brittle is considered a staple in Ozma’s palace kitchens. I thoroughly approve. For all that, and for all of the definite fun of allowing Ozma out of her palace stripped of her powers and getting to be a boy again, I can’t help but feel that something is missing here, and not just the subversive messages that made the earlier books so powerful, or the tight plotting that marks the McGraws’ other two Oz books.
Rather, I think the problem is that here, in contrast to the other two books, the McGraws were not playing with their own characters, but rather those created by Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson. The McGraws do quite well with these borrowed characters—Kabumpo, in particular, gets off some good lines. But the McGraws seemed to do better when they could place their own characters, and thus, their own voices, in Oz, rather than borrowing the rhythms and voices of Baum and Thompson.
Perhaps recognizing that mistake, Eloise McGraw returned to focusing on her own characters in her next book, which I’ll be chatting about right after I discuss the last of the John R. Neill books, The Runaway in Oz, which was the next of the Quasi-Famous Oz books to be published.
Mari Ness thoroughly approves of peanut brittle in both real and fantastical contexts. She lives in central Florida.