Thu
Nov 4 2010 2:54pm
Fairylands in the Sky: Sky Island

Sky Island by L. Frank BaumEven disappointing sales of the first Trot and Cap’n Bill book, The Sea Fairies, could not keep L. Frank Baum from writing a second, in the desperate (and ultimately unfulfilled) hope that Trot and Cap’n Bill’s adventures might prove lucrative enough to free him ever having to write another Oz book again. In his desperation, he created some of his loveliest images yet, blended with some of his sharpest political satire—and even threw in a couple of cameo appearances by minor characters from the Oz books. The end result, Sky Island, may not have saved him from Oz—but it would be one of his best and most underappreciated books.

Sky Island begins with Trot encountering a young boy who has literally arrived from out of the sky, clutching an umbrella. Shades of Mary Poppins, except that the boy is Button-Bright (now aged a little from his first unpromising appearance in The Road to Oz) and he is not the slightest bit magical. But he does have an umbrella that will fly him to any destination he voices out loud. After some hesitation, Trot and Cap’n Bill agree to take a ride with him. Since none of them remember that consulting a map is always a valued tool when dealing with fairy magic, a slight issue sends them, and the umbrella, soaring up through the clouds to the fairyland of Sky Island. (Which also answers the question of how they can breathe up there—magic.)

They land, not entirely on purpose, on the blue side of the island. It is, well, blue. Very blue: all of the people and the objects are various shades of blue, and even their princesses have blue names. The Blueskins (their own name for themselves) are ruled by the Boolooroo of the Blues, who explains:

“...This is a Republic, you know. The people elect all their officers from the King down. Every man and every woman is a voter. The Boolooroo tells them whom to vote for, and if they don’t obey, they are severely punished. It’s a fine system of government, and the only thing I object to is electing the Boolooroo for only three hundred years. It ought to be for life.”

By “severely punished,” the Boolooroo means, “be cut into half and spliced together with half of another person, always having to share half of yourself with someone else.” A most uncomfortable way to live. Or, for those deserving an even greater punishment, having to serve his daughters, the Six Snub-Nosed Princesses, models of beauty and terrible behavior.

But even this system is not working the way it should. As it turns out (hold your surprise) the Boolooroo is cheating. He’s outlived his three hundred year leadership span, and has conveniently failed to mention this to anyone. And, since he firmly controls the government, no one can be quite sure of this, and his subjects suffer quietly, or rather, quietly complainingly.

Not surprisingly, Trot, Cap’n Bill and Button-Bright decide that this is a place to linger in. Since Button-Bright’s umbrella has been confiscated, they decide to make a run for it to the other side of the island, a choice that involves travelling through a rather unpleasant Wall of Fog filled with talking frogs.

Like the Blueskins and the frogs, the Pinks are governed by a monarchy, but one set up rather differently. As their queen, Tourmaline, who lives in a shack, explains:

“Ruler is appointed to protect and serve the people, and here in the Pink Country I have the full power to carry out the laws. I even decree death when such a punishment is merited. Therefore I am a mere agent...Too much should never be given to anyone. If, with my great power, conferred upon me by the people, I also possessed great wealth, I might be tempted to be cruel and overbearing...The Ruler, be it king or queen, has absolute power to rule, but no riches, no high station, no false adulation.”

Tourmaline’s description of wealthy, powerful rulers certain sounds accurate, and her decision to obey the laws and live in poverty despite her regal status sounds properly public spirited. (Nor is she cheating the law or slicing people in half.) And yet, not only is Tourmaline utterly miserable, with only the prospect of having a statue created in her honor to look forward to, but also, her government is severely dysfunctional. As one of the Pinks admits, however public-minded their political system may sound, the country has been engrossed in multiple civil wars, which the monarch has been unable to stop. And while the Boolooroo’s supposed Republic was admittedly unable to prevent three prisoners/slaves from escaping, the Pinks are even less able to function. The Boolooroo can at least issue orders and make decisions. Tourmaline cannot decide what to do with Trot, Cap’n Bill and Button-Bright, even after researching the appropriate laws. The jury of twelve jurors that she summons is equally unable to decide anything, leaving the country moribund and helpless.

It takes a witch and a fairy (Polychrome, fresh from dancing along The Road to Oz) to enable the government to act. And as Polychrome, inexplicably transformed into a fairy lawyer, notes, for all of its supposed strict allegiance to law, the government (and Tourmaline) isn’t even following its own laws correctly. Admittedly, this is partly because the law in question is exceedingly silly, serving as an excellent example of just why racism is a bad idea. As it turns out, Trot, not Tourmaline, is the actual ruler of the Pinks—not because of any specific qualifications but because Trot’s skin is slightly paler. Tourmaline joyfully gives up the throne, and Trot, less joyfully, takes over, rewriting some of the country’s more questionable laws, and leading the Pinks to the land of the Blueskins to regain the magic umbrella, and not incidentally, overthrow that king as well.

It says something that a ten year old is able to make wise and more efficient decisions than either government. Baum was well aware of the implications. But for all his critiques of government—and his comments on both democracy and public service are both hilarious and spot on—Baum never does quite give a solution, other than “Fairies!” which is perhaps not the most practical solution for those of us not fortunate enough to live in fairy countries.

Nonetheless, the acid humor, laced through the book, helps to make Sky Island one of Baum’s most delightful books, filled with wonderful touches: language saturated with color; Trot befriending the poor neglected pets of the Snub-nosed Princesses (a kindly deed that, alas, inflicts both her and Baum’s readers with a rhyming parrot, further proof that Baum could never resist any opportunity to create silly rhymes), and the way that Baum, in 1908, nonchalantly shows a woman leading one of the two Pink armies, and allows Trot to rescue Cap’n Bill, instead of needing rescue.

Sidenote: I find, despite his multiple appearances that I haven’t talked much about Cap’n Bill. The old seaman may not, on the surface, seem as innovative as Baum’s freakish Oz characters, or as well developed as John Dough or Queen Zixi. But yet, Cap’n Bill does represent something intriguing: an elderly, disabled man who acts as one of the major protagonists, not merely a mentor to the young heroine, but a full hero. I draw attention to this mostly because, not too long ago, critics across the country were marveling that Pixar had dared to create an ostensibly children’s flick that, gasp, starred an elderly protagonist using a cane.

And if the first two Trot and Cap’n Bill books did not sell as well as Baum had hoped, by the time the two reached Oz (in the company of Button-Bright) they were two of his most popular, successful characters, suggesting that the market for elderly, disabled protagonists may be healthier than most movie critics expected.

This was, however, to be the pair’s last “solo” adventure, although Baum was to bring them to Oz in The Scarecrow of Oz, and give them a major role in The Magic of Oz and minor roles in other Oz books. Alas, most of the later Royal Historians did not seem to know what to do with the two characters, although Ruth Plumly Thompson was to feature Trot in The Giant Horse of Oz, leaving Cap’n Bill largely behind, and an appreciative Jack Snow brought the two back for cameo appearances in The Magical Mimics Of Oz.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida. You can find her Oz series recaps collected here.

5 comments
mrpond47
1. mrpond47
Excellent write-up. I'd completely forgotten about this book until you got to the Magic Umbrella--then it all rushed back with bells on. I adored this book as a child. I forget how many times I read it, but it must have been my favourite Baum story (aside from Father Goose). When you're that age, the daft parrot and such don't bother you. The Boolooroo thoroughly terrified me, as did the awful, guillotine suggestions of his splicing punishments. If I recall correctly, I had a bit of a 'thing' for Trot, and wanted to be Cap'n Bill when I grew up...

The more I revist and critically reexamine Baum's works, the more I appreciate his artistitry and political satire. Thanks for the memories.
mrpond47
2. erinlb
When I was in 5th or 6th grade, I really, really wanted to read these books, but Dover hadn't yet reprinted them and the library didn't have them, so I was out of luck.

I keep meaning to track them down again some time; Trot and Cap'n Bill were always favorites of mine within the Oz books.
mrpond47
3. J. L. Bell
Fine analysis of a terrific book.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@mrpond47 - I can't remember if the parrot bothered me when I initially read this book, back when I was 11 or so, but as an adult, the parrot very much reads as Baum's way of indulging his love for wordplay and exceedingly silly rhymes. He just couldn't resist.

I did completely miss the political satire when I was a kid, but I did love all of the Pinks and their glorious sunrises and sunsets.

@erinlb Since it's now in public domain, The Sea Fairies is available in a number of cheap paperback editions, a free Kindle edition, and on Gutenberg, which is how I got it on my little Sony ereader, so it's become considerably easier to track down.

@J.L. Bell Thanks!
mrpond47
5. ericshanower
One of my favorite books. From the beginning until the characters reach Sky Island is perhaps Baum's best writing. Why this book isn't more lauded dumbfounds me.

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