Shortly before his death in 1943, Royal Illustrator of Oz John R. Neill completed one more manuscript, The Runaway in Oz. Tragically, Neill did not have time to complete the illustrations, and without those, Oz publishers Reilly and Lee declined to print the book. (Poor sales of Neill’s previous three books, wartime rationing and budgeting concerns may also have played a role in their decision.) But in the mid 1990s, with sales of Oz books remaining small but steady, Books of Wonder decided to resurrect Neill’s book with new illustrations.
As some of you might remember, I was somewhat underwhelmed by John R. Neill’s three previous contributions to the Oz series, finding them either incoherent or dull or both. But a few of you urged me to seek out this fourth novel anyway. And so, with what I must admit was a sense of trepidation, I tracked down the book. I kept chocolate on hand as I opened it—for emergency purposes, just in case, you understand.
But, to my astonishment, The Runaway in Oz turns out to be....okay. Competent, even. Sometimes, even—dare I say this about a John R. Neill Oz book?—Good.
I can explain this unexpected competency in only three ways:
1. Between books three and four, John R. Neill suddenly and inexplicably learned how to write.
2. Reilly and Lee’s editorial interventions on the first three books were even worse than I thought.
3. What Eric Shanower, the book’s editor and illustrator, calls “editing,” many of us would actually call “rewriting.”
I haven’t seen any of the original manuscripts, so I can’t say which of these is correct. I can say that readers scarred, as I was, by earlier Neill books should feel free to give this book a try.
The Runaway in Oz stars the always amusing and almost always rhyming Scraps, the Patchwork Girl. Here, she acts even more immaturely than usual, deciding to run away after she badly scraps up —I mean, scruffs and scratches up—Ozma’s beautifully polished floors. (You would think that Ozma would have her floors guarded by Magical Everlasting Floor Polish, but apparently even magic has its limits when it comes to floor cleaning. You might also think that Ozma would have noticed that one of her favorite subjects and close friends is feeling unusually restless and miserable, but, no.) The entire episode mostly serves as an excuse to get the always restless Scraps out on her spoolicle (a sort of four wheeled bicycle apparently invented by, of all people, Jack Pumpkinhead, apparently solely for the purpose of allowing Neill and Shanower to create hilarious illustrations of Scraps riding it on strange roads, mountains and clouds) and out exploring Oz and its sky environs.
Not content with exploring the strange areas of Oz, Neill once again takes to the sky, sending Scraps and her new found friends—all runaways like herself—to a star, a cloud, and a marvelous castle in the air. This is Neill at his imaginative best, what with angry and irritated vegetables going on military marches (the lesson is that summer squash is even more terrifying than the most ardent vegetable hater thought it might be), hard working weather witches sending hurricanes around the world, fighting clouds taking off the stars, and star polishers. (And now you know how stars shine, at least in fairylands. People polish them.) In a very nice touch, the Woggle-bug’s college finally goes coed. Amazingly and unusually for Neill, all of this actually makes sense—again, I suspect editorial intervention.
In the B-plot, the various adults of the tale—Jenny Jump, sporting a trendy new outfit and hairstyle in each illustration; the Woggle-bug, now Highly Irritated as he searches for his castle; and Jack Pumpkinhead, in a surprisingly adult role; with Jack Pumpkinhead’s shoe orchestra along for musical entertainment—takes off in search of Scraps and the air castle, getting entangled with a rather nasty orchard along the way. This is what happens when you let your vegetables develop minds of their own, people: fruit terrorists. And in a B-plot in the B-plot, Jenny is not to be stopped in her relentless search for her lost fairy gifts, even in the faces of irritated fighting fruit.
All of this is very much the story of a child—but not the typical Oz story of an American child wanting to get home, or bewildered by strange encounters. Rather, this is the story of a child declining all responsibilities and taking off to have pure fun, free from all chores, homework, lessons and so on. A child who is deeply frustrated by the adults who surround her, all of whom are focused on on their own, seemingly dull interests (clean floors, inspecting Gillikin kingdoms, growing vegetables, keeping the citizens of the Emerald City in fine style) instead of appreciating her need to play. In this sense, Runaway in Oz is the first pure escapist tale of the entire Oz series, one dealing directly with a child’s desire to just play, and not do any of that tedious stuff about quests and saving Oz and doing the right thing. And it’s rather marvelous escapism as well, especially since although Scraps does face some consequences for her actions (looking heroic as she does) she is ultimately easily forgiven, and the very worst thing that happens to her is that she makes a long term friend.
That long term friend is Popla the Power Plant, a plant who is, well, powerful. She does need to put her roots in the ground for some sustenance now and again, but, once fed, her leaves shake with power. But she is also a lovely girl, with a gift and joy for rhyming—a gift that sparks Scraps’ jealousy. The two friends decide that they cannot bear to hear each other’s rhymes, so they are doomed to speak only prose to each other. But this is a mild flaw in what seems otherwise to be a very promising friendship.
I am not sure that L. Frank Baum’s Patchwork Girl was ever quite this childish, but I cannot, offhand, think of another Oz protagonist so easy for a rebellious child to identify with. If anything, Oz protagonists have, for the most part, tended to be a little too good. Scraps provides a refreshing change. If The Runaway in Oz doesn’t have the same depth of many of the other Oz books, and seems aimed at slightly younger audience, and if I’m slightly worried, from a health perspective, about introducing young audiences already disinclined to eat their vegetables to the concept of actively hostile summer squash and irritable orchards, it’s also a comfortable and imaginative read. It reminds us that Oz has a home even for those who chose to run away from it.
Since we’re already on a cute note, just for the additional cuteness factor: a group of children just set a Wizard of Oz record for “the largest gathering of people dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz.” I didn’t even know this was a category. Check out the irritated little Cowardly Lion in the front.
Mari Ness regrets to note that she does not have any Cowardly Lion costumes. She lives in central Florida.