Illustrator John R. Neill had been part of the creation of Oz almost from the beginning. (The very first Oz book had been illustrated by William Wallace Denslow, thus accounting for its very different look.) It’s probably safe to say that Neill’s marvelous illustrations had a significant, positive effect on the popularity of the series. The lavish, striking images gave Oz a recognizable look, helped shore up the weakest of the Baum books, and provided visual continuity for readers when Ruth Plumly Thompson took over the series, helping readers adjust to the inevitable change in tone, focus and ideas. Neill’s image of the Scarecrow, for instance, is the Scarecrow (with all due respect to Ray Bolger’s singing and dancing version), no matter who might be penning the dialogue. And, after reading and illustrating 32 Oz books, Neill could rightfully be regarded as one of the genuine living experts on Oz.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Oz publishers Reilly and Lee, failing to persuade Ruth Plumly Thompson to return for another Oz book, turned to John R. Neill to continue the series. The result, however, The Wonder City of Oz, was probably not what they, or anyone, expected.
The Wonder City of Oz begins in New Jersey, where a girl called Jenny Jump turns into a bad tempered half-fairy after meeting a leprechaun. I would not have thought that New Jersey was a favorite stomping ground for leprechauns, but whatever. After this, things stop making sense.
Let me explain. No, it’s too complicated. Let me sum up.
Jenny jumps into Oz and there’s a party and then she decides to tell Ozma about elections and Ozma decides to have one and Jenny runs against her but first she opens up a style shop where she hires a kid called Number Nine and kinda tortures him into working by putting him into screaming pants and then the houses who mostly like Ozma start fighting with Jenny’s house and throwing around lightning rods and bits of their roofs at one another and Jenny gets mad again and then she tries to buy off the Ozelection only it doesn’t work because she’s accidentally collected the wrong shoes and then she gets into an Ozoplane with Jack Pumpkinhead and Scraps and they crash on Chocolate Land (or something) and in the least believable scene in the entire book start fighting with chocolate and there’s some gnomes looking for warts (it’s best not to ask) and a cute little two headed purple dragon and Sir Hokus and some cats and some shallow reflections on how anyone can win an election when trapped in a chocolate jail and then a fight between chocolate and singing shoes and Kabumpo and a voice that lost its body and zip zip around Oz by Sawhorseback and then Jenny takes over the defenses of the Emerald City (no, of course Ozma’s not involved in defending the city. I told you, Neill read the books and was an expert on Oz) and the Wizard of Oz melts a chocolate jail on a chocolate star and Scraps and Jack Pumpkinhead slide into Oz and there’s another Ozelection which has to be fixed to prevent a landslide since the country is too fragile to survive a landslide ha ha ha and the leprechaun reappears and there’s some bulls and another dragon and Jenny gets a lobotomy and becomes a Duchess The End. Oh, and Scraps hits a lot of people.
I understate. Deeply understate.
Even long term, devoted Oz fans can be forgiven for not being able to follow this book or understand much of what’s going on: incoherent is an understatement.
This was not the result of deliberate authorial or editorial choice: rather, the book, although credited to Neill, was the product of two different authors: one of whom, alas, did not know how to write (Neill) and the other one of whom, more alas, did know much about the book. The second writer, an anonymous editor at Reilly and Lee, was apparently responsible for bits like the nonsensical Ozelection. Seriously nonsensical: the first vote is based on…shoes, on the basis that people have too many umbrellas for voting purposes. (I’m not making this up. Seriously. This is the argument for the shoes.) In more gifted hands, this scene could have shone with the lunacy of a Lewis Carroll. These are not gifted hands.
This dual authorship also helps explain at least some of the book’s many internal inconsistencies, which are almost too many to count. The distinct impression is that the editor assigned to rewrite and add to the book either did not read, or did not understand, Neill’s sections. As a result, the main character, Jenny Jump, swings between cautious and impetuous, kindly and bad tempered, intelligent and unthinking—often on the same page. She also grows progressively younger, possibly because of the leprechaun, or possibly not, and why precisely she, alone of any visitor to Oz, needs a lobotomy is really not clear. (I’m also not sure why Ozma is encouraging this sort of thing.)
It’s not just Jenny, either. For example, on page 234, Jenny informs Number Nine that Scraps and Jack Pumpkinhead are imprisoned in chocolate and in dire need of rescue (look, the book doesn’t make much sense). An unconcerned, untroubled Number Nine suggests working in the store and celebrating. By page 236, Number Nine is suddenly freaking out that he might be too late to rescue Scraps and Jack Pumpkinhead. Similar examples abound.
Behind all of this are some possibly intriguing ideas that never really do get worked out. In a way, for instance, Jenny can be seen as attempting to introduce—or reintroduce—American political concepts to an Oz that had been a communist utopia under Baum, and a wealthy aristocracy with generally satisfied (and mostly unseen) peasants under Thompson. But to say that these attempts misfire is to put it kindly. The Ozelection that Jenny initiates is eventually decided in the most arbitrary of ways: the Wooglebug determines how much an individual vote should count by literally weighing people, comparing the weights of people who vote for Ozma with those who vote for Jenny. In further proof that I’m not the only one to express doubts about the leadership abilities of the Girl Ruler, the final vote comes out almost exactly even—how desperate must the Ozites be to vote for an often bad tempered clothes stylist who likes to fight with chocolate instead?
I also have no idea why Ozma, either in her role as the royal daughter of Pastoria, last in a long line of fairy kings, or as the fairy entrusted with the rule of Oz by Lurline, or as the inexplicably beloved ruler of the fairyland, would agree to have the election in the first place. After a first, horrified response, Ozma has always, but always, known herself to be the Ruler of Oz and accepted her responsibilities, even if she has failed to carry out about half of them. If the election had been sparked by a serious discussion of exactly why Ozma still doesn’t have a security system or any way to stop the multiple invasions of Oz, however great her follow-up parties, I might have accepted it, but for Ozma to just nod and say, hmm, sure, on the suggestion of a complete stranger from New Jersey is just too far fetched to believe, even in Oz. And any idea of handing over the country to a complete stranger makes no sense in a series that continually focused, even in Baum’s days, on ensuring that the correct, authorized rulers remain in place, no matter who they might be.
Jenny’s other attempts to add two more American values—hard work and punctuality—to Oz do not go too well either. She literally has to torture Number Nine into hard work. (He finds this torture entrancing. I’m not sure we’re ready to explore the implications of this from an Oz perspective.) The clocks start lying to her and eventually run away. (I must admit I can see the appeal of a clock like this.)
But the fundamental problem with this book is that much of it is simply terribly written. Neill cannot be faulted for a lack of imagination—if anything, the book is rather too imaginative—but he had not learned how to turn these ideas into written words. The book’s sentences are frequently so choppy that they can be difficult to read. The mess also stems from a serious misunderstanding about Oz: Oz is fantastical, filled with puns and strange and odd creatures, but not nonsensical. Someone—either Neill or the editor if not both—attempted to turn Oz into nonsense here, and decidedly failed.
With this said, I did enjoy parts of the book: the little dragon, the cats on leashes, and the return of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and if I can’t envision ever fighting with chocolate myself (I would surrender immediately, as far too many people can gleefully testify) the illustrations were highly entertaining. Then again, when I read it, I was high on scones, coffee, and Lost frustration—the last of which greatly increased my tolerance for improbable events and dropped plot lines.
Neill did not find out that his manuscript had been severely altered until it arrived in printed form on his doorstep. The severe editing and rewriting of this first novel failed to daunt him: he sat down to pen his next masterwork: the infamous (in Oz circles) Scalawagons of Oz.
Mari Ness finds that the thought of fighting with chocolate makes her terrified and faintly ill. She lives in central Florida.