Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Dinosaurs in Fairyland: Speedy in Oz

Some people just have no luck, no matter how many times they go to fairyland.

Speedy appears to be one of these luckless folks. Even if he does get to have his name on the title of an Oz book.

In The Yellow Knight of Oz, as you may remember, poor Speedy, an American kid from Long Island with a mad inventor for an uncle, rescued a golden princess, only to see her end up with someone else. In Speedy in Oz, Speedy gets to return to fairyland—but once again, not necessarily to his expected happy ending, as he finds himself torn between desire and duty. It’s one of Thompson’s richest, most moving books—and reputedly her personal favorite.

Most of Speedy in Oz takes place outside Oz, both in the United States and on a magical flying island powered by umbrellas.  (Pat yourself on the back if you are not surprised to learn that the island is called Umbrella Island.)  Alas, the island does not always steer too well—one of the dangers of relying on umbrellas—and in one sad incident, the island has smashed right into the head of a giant.  The unhappy giant demands recompense in the form of a boy to tie his shoes and otherwise take care of him. (I would have asked for magical painkillers, but, then again, I’m not a giant.)  The boy in question is actually a princess, Gureeda, who spends considerably more time reading than worrying about what gender she appears to be at any moment, thanks to a careless attitude about clothes—thus the confusion. The giant generously, and I must admit rather inexplicably, gives the islanders just three months to deliver the princess.

I’ll just go ahead and admit that Gureeda’s love for books makes the princess one of my all time favorite Oz characters. She might prefer reading about adventures to having them, but she also shows a remarkably broad knowledge gained from her books about all kinds of important things, including dinosaurs.  Here at last was a human—granted, a human living in a flying fairyland, so, perhaps just mostly human—girl that I could thoroughly identify with.  (Let me give you an example: during an escape scene, she brings along 16 books. Just because. Awesome.)

Meanwhile, over in the United States, Speedy, in his first bit of bad luck (well, bad luck from his perspective) has been forced to spend his vacation at Yellowstone National Park with his uncle, and worse, go hunt for dinosaur bones. (Oh, the pain.)  After a small interval encouraging all of us to go and visit this national treasure (the National Park Service could do far worse than using this passage in a tourist brochure) they arrive at the dig, where, in the single most unbelievable scene in a book that includes a helpful cat, a flying island steered by umbrellas, and Ozma acting almost reasonably, Speedy and his uncle manage to assemble a entire giant dinosaur skeleton in less than a day. Er. Right.  Only slightly less implausibly, the scientists just happen to have placed the dig, and thus the skeleton and Speedy, right on top of a geyser, which just happens to explode, shooting Speedy and the dinosaur up into the sky and onto Umbrella Island.  (I am assured by the National Park Service that this sort of thing almost never happens.) You’d think that getting shot up by a geyser thousands and thousands of feet up into the sky would be kinda painful, but instead, it turns out to be rather invigorating—so much so that the explosion turns the skeleton into a living, talking dinosaur skeleton with a surprisingly deep love of ancient Greek poetic forms. (No, really.) He’s called Terrybubble.

Don’t ask me what sort of dinosaur Terrybubble is supposed to be. In the illustrations, he vaguely seems to resemble a Brontosaurus, which my inner dinosaur geek would like to irritatingly remind you is more properly named Apatosaurus, but that may not be right. The point is, he’s a gigantic, walking, talking dinosaur skeleton who would like to be a dog. Comedy gold.

By yet another remarkable coincidence, not only has Umbrella Island kindly broken Speedy and Terrybubble’s geyser fall, but Speedy looks remarkably like Princess Gureeda. Enough, think her father and his chief advisor, to use Speedy as her replacement, fooling the giant, setting in motion a plot quite different from most of the other Thompson Oz books.  I haven’t dwelled much on this aspect, but most of Thompson’s books tend to focus on traveling and traveling and more traveling and rushing to various places to save the Emerald City or a kingdom or something. Here, the plot focuses on mystery, betrayal, honor and duty—and although the island itself drifts around, the characters do not, and seem content to let the island mostly go where it will, with the exception of a brief tussle with two warring countries.

Nor is the book, as it first appears, a simple story of defeating the giant. Indeed, unusually for one of Thompson’s Oz books, Speedy in Oz contains no clear villains. The giant is merely seeking compensation for his injuries; the king’s advisor is merely trying to save the princess. Perhaps as a result of this, the book contains few fully benign adult authority figures.  Even apart from the giant and the advisor, the island’s wizard is deeply jealous of the king’s other advisors and of the Wizard of Oz, a jealousy that endangers others; the king is weak and wavering; and all of the adults continue to endanger the princess from a fear of embarrassment, in a rather brutally realistic social observation. (And while I said that Ozma is nearly reasonable in this book, you weren’t really expecting her to pick up the slack here, were you? I didn’t think so.)

Rather, the book is about the differences between reality and dreams—and the need to choose between them. The wizard and the king must choose between their false, if reasonable perceptions and the chance of saving their princess; they also must choose between honor and deception. In a book that argues for action and reality over books, Gureeda, who prefers to read about adventures, must venture from her books more than once (even as Speedy learns to tolerate her book addiction, and realize that her book knowledge comes into use more than once.) And finally, Speedy must choose between staying in Umbrella Island and Oz with Gureeda, or returning home to the United States.

By the end of the book, it is clear that Speedy and Gureeda have fallen for each other, in a shy, adolescent sort of way. In most other books, this would be the signal for the start of a shy, adolescent sort of romance. At the very least, it would signal Speedy’s decision to stay in Oz and Umbrella Island, along with the dinosaur, who has become a close friend. But distressingly, Speedy chooses to leave, not because he doesn’t want to stay. He does. But he is worried about his uncle, and—the deciding factor—he needs to build weapons for the United States.

Coming from a boy who earlier in the book had bravely risked his life to deactivate those same weapons to prevent a war, this decision is particularly distressing. Speedy could, after all, ask Ozma to bring his uncle to Umbrella Island. But the weapons issue is a real one, presented by Thompson as the right, and only patriotic choice. Speedy of Oz may have been written six years before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia; nonetheless, the Japanese invasion of Manuchuria, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the ever-present threat of the Soviet Union had left Thompson, at least, convinced that the United States and its citizens needed to focus on war preparations. (It somewhat foreshadows some of the later Oz books that would be printed with notes urging young readers to buy war stamps and war bombs.)

Speedy, of course, was not Thompson’s only American visitor to chose the United States over Oz. Peter, too, had returned to Philadephia after three separate trips. But unlike Speedy, Peter seemed to regard his adventures in Oz almost as a joke; his return is not, like Speedy’s, presented as a difficult and painful choice.  And Peter returns from his adventures loaded down with treasure, far wealthier than he began. Speedy returns from this trip armed only with ideas for weapons and plans for hard work and a naval career. Peter had made many acquaintances among the Oz celebrities, but few true friends. Speedy leaves behind his two best friends. (It feels rather as if Harry Potter had decided to study nuclear physics after his first year at Hogwarts.)

Speedy isn’t even happy with American life he chooses, describing it as “humdrum,” although since that life included building rockets and piecing together dinosaurs and taking wild trips out west, I kinda wonder what he’d consider exciting. Maybe it’s just dull in comparison to Oz. It at least explains why he doesn’t feel the need to experience adventures through books.

But while I recognize the necessity of choosing reality over fairyland, I can’t help thinking that in Oz, at least, things should be different. It’s more than sobering to think that even in 1933, Thompson saw enough of a shadow in the world that she could not allow her characters to seek safety in a fairyland. A fairyland that, ironically, had, at least in its capital, renounced violence and war, and refused to keep a standing army. (Although given the multiple times the Emerald City is invaded, maybe it’s not all that safe.) Thompson does end the book with a suggestion that Speedy and his uncle might, at some point, return to Umbrella Island, perhaps as a sop to readers unable to bear the thought of Speedy losing yet another girlfriend. But that will come only at an uncertain, dreamy, future time. In the meantime, Speedy has a war to fight.

Sidenote: for some reason, the famous Magic Picture of Oz has, in this book, been changed to the Magic Mirror of Oz.  I originally thought this was meant to be some kind of reference to Snow White, but after checking the dates, I realized that the Disney movie came after this book, so maybe not. I have no idea what else might have been behind this otherwise inexplicable and temporary change.

Mari Ness wouldn’t mind having a dinosaur for a friend, the friendly sort of dinosaur, that is. She lives in central Florida, with two furry creatures that want you to know that they are considerably cuter than dinosaurs.


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