Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Fairness and Foolishness: The Patchwork Girl of Oz

No matter what else Baum wrote, his readers constantly demanded more Oz books. So, just three years after swearing off the series forever, when he found himself short of money again, he broke down and wrote a new Oz book.  (Conan Doyle would have sympathized.)  However brief, the break invigorated him: The Patchwork Girl of Oz is one of Baum’s best Oz books, an assured and fast-moving fairy tale raising questions of fairness and comparative morality.

Despite the title, the story centers around the quest of young Ojo the Munchkin to find six strange ingredients needed for a potion that can restore his uncle and a neighbor to life. (A magician accidentally turned them into stone.) In the first half of the book, Ojo and his companions, new characters the Glass Cat and the Patchwork Girl, travel to the Emerald City, meeting the Shaggy Man, the Scarecrow and the Woozy (whose tail is one of the needed ingredients) along the way.

At the Emerald City, Ojo is imprisoned for the crime of stealing another necessary ingredient, a six leaf clover.  Ojo does not deny the crime; he finds the law foolish. Ozma explains that since six leaf clovers form a major component of evil spells, and since evil magicians and witches continue to practice magic despite her laws forbidding magic, she has outlawed the picking of six leaf clovers. Why Ozma thinks that people who are already flouting the first law will care too much about anti-clover picking laws is unclear.

(Believe it or not, I really don’t want to be all about the Ozma hate. But honestly, Ozma, would it have killed you to, you know, explain the idea behind your law to the Shaggy Man, at least, so that it would not have seemed so arbitrary and unfair? Especially given that just two books ago you merrily welcomed a self confessed thief of magical items to Oz, so arresting a kid that only wanted to save his uncle by picking a six leaf clover comes off as particularly unfair.  No wonder the Wizard has to provide the required happy ending of the book—but I anticipate.)

After this, Ojo, the Patchwork Girl, Dorothy and the Scarecrow head off on a quest to find the other remaining ingredients. They find two seemingly impossible ones. Triumphantly, they are about to take the last item—the left wing of a yellow butterfly—only to be stopped by an indignant Tin Woodman, who states that pulling off a butterfly’s wing is torture. He will not permit it, even to bring Unc Nunkie back to life.

When I first read this book as a child, I was horrified that my kind hearted Tin Woodman was willing to let two people—one a beloved uncle of the main character—remain stone statues, essentially dead, all to keep a butterfly from feeling any pain.  And although as an adult I can see the Tin Woodman’s point, I still find the elevation of a butterfly over the urgent needs of two humans morally dubious.  This isn’t just about making them happy; this is letting the humans live—and not incidentally, bringing the only relative Ojo has ever known back to life.

(My distressed feeling is not helped by Ozma’s squeaking, “oooh, if you’d just told me that you’d needed the left wing of a yellow butterfly, I would have told you not to bother to take that trip.”  Gee, THANKS OZMA! Oh. Right. Just said I didn’t want to be all about the Ozma hate. Onwards!)

Ojo makes the same argument. But the Tin Woodman, a moral absolutist, declares that torture is never justified. Even on insects.

(I’ll just tiptoe by the obvious contemporary parallel, shall I?)

Incidentally, it’s the second time in the book that characters have placed the needs of insects over the needs of others, continuing the minor theme of Insects They Are Awesome Don’t Kill Them running through all of the Oz books.

Baum is not just against torture, but against harsh punishments as well:

We consider a prisoner unfortunate.  He is unfortunate in two ways — because he has done something wrong and because he is deprived of his liberty. Therefore, we should treat him kindly, because of his misfortune, for otherwise he would become hard and bitter and would not be sorry he had done wrong…

And so the guilty Ojo is treated kindly, feels terrible shame indeed, and readily confesses and feels sorry for his crime. But before we get too comfortable with the overwhelming kindness of Oz, the Shaggy Man gives us this little bit:

“In this country,” remarked the Shaggy Man, “people live wherever our Ruler tells them to. It wouldn’t do to have everyone live in the Emerald City, you know, for some must plow the land and raise grains and fruits and vegetables, while others chop wood in the forests, or fish in the rivers, or herd the sheep and the cattle.”

This, coming from the one character who never seems to do any work at all, and enjoys a luxurious suite of rooms at the palace, seems a little much.  Previous books had already shown that certain characters, thanks to their friendship with Ozma or by virtue of their uniqueness, were able to ditch the idea of work entirely, living in luxury surrounded by servants, but this is the first indication that Ozma is actually ordering the workforce around to ensure that the system works. (It’s only fair to add that some of the queer and magical characters do work—Jack Pumpkinhead, for instance, is a hard working and skilled pumpkin farmer and baker of pumpkin pies.)  This is also the first book emphasizing that only certain people are allowed to practice magic to make their lives a little easier. Hmm.

Two things mar Patchwork Girl: an incident with the Tottenhots, meant to refer to stereotypical descriptions of the Hottenhots of South Africa, and the horrible song played by the living phonograph, with the godawful lyrics, “Ah wants mah Lulu, my coal-black Lulu.”  The Oz characters, to their credit, also object to this song, even if they seem to be reacting more to the sound than to the lyrics.  Both bits are jarring in a book where a literally colorful woman, created to be a household slave, earns her independence and merrily defends her unusual, “crazy” appearance, refusing to be pitied or condemned. It’s also a depressing reminder that here, at least, Baum was all too much a man of his age, despite his pointed examples of tolerance and acceptance of differing sorts of people in this and other Oz books.

(The racial references have been removed in the Books of Wonder editions, but can be found in other printings and in the Gutenberg etexts.  The rest of Baum’s Oz books, with the exception of another unfortunate reference in Rinkitink in Oz, are generally free of racial stereotyping, although Baum did pen bigoted statements against Native Americans in non-Oz related contexts.)

Mari Ness would happily pick a six leaf clover to perform a little magic, if she could find one. She lives in central Florida.


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