Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Performing in Fairyland: The Shaggy Man of Oz

If sales of The Magical Mimics in Oz, Jack Snow’s first Oz book, had been somewhat disappointing, they were at least good enough for Oz publishers Reilly and Lee to hire Jack Snow to write a second Oz book. A year later, it might have been difficult to tell who was the least happy with this request: the publishers, who sent the initial manuscript back demanding that Snow discard the entire first half of the book—while keeping the entire second half, or Snow, who, faced with this request, also had to read the cheery little note from an editor: “How I pity your present state of mind, trying to think up an entirely new story!”

You may be beginning to understand just why Reilly and Lee had difficulty keeping writers on board.

The demand was apparently based on their belief that the first half of the new book, The Shaggy Man of Oz, too closely resembled an earlier book in the series, Tik-Tok of Oz. Given Snow’s obsession with sounding as much like L. Frank Baum as possible, this might well have been a legitimate criticism, although the 38th book of the series seems an odd time to start worrying about originality and quality. Meanwhile, Snow, stuck with the genuine quandary of how to write a new first half that would not overly disrupt the second half, fell back to the tired and true plot of Oz: young American children visiting Oz. Ironically, Reilly and Lee’s very quest for originality had created the very repetition they had feared.

Had Snow been allowed to think up an entirely new story, things might have gone better—he had, after all, demonstrated a gift for suspenseful, streamlined plotting in his previous book. But whether the problem was the plot constraints, or the fighting with his publishers, The Shaggy Man of Oz is a less compelling read than its predecessor—if a considerably more lighthearted one that is still a fun read, with several pointedly ironic chapters on the evils of forced performances. If I can’t exactly rank this among the best of the Oz books, it’s a decidedly pleasant, comforting read.

As the title indicates, the book features the return of the Shaggy Man, the genial American hobo and thief welcomed into Oz by Baum and pointedly ignored by Ruth Plumly Thompson, with her more aristocratic leanings. (Snow downplays the thieving.) This is the book’s first problem: the Shaggy Man at is best was one of the more bland characters of Oz, and Snow, careful to follow Baum’s lead, does not change that depiction. Not helping are the two American kids, twins Twink and Tom. They’re certainly nice enough, but, probably to avoid conflict with the later story, Snow avoided giving them any personality quirks, even positive ones such as Dorothy’s determination and Trot’s thoughtfulness. Thus, they, too, come off as rather bland and forgettable.

Plus, Twink and Tom are never the ones to solve any of the book’s problems and dangers: they simply follow the lead of the grownups. Even Tom’s major heroic scene—rescuing the Shaggy Man by using the Love Magnet—is someone else’s idea. Twink and Tom have no burning desire to get home or find a home, no overwhelming fear, no drive. They observe, but do not act. This might be realistic, but in a series generally celebrating independent children exploring fairylands, reducing the children to uninteresting tourists is somehow unsatisfying.

On the bright side, they have a marvelous, or perhaps portentous, method of traveling to Oz: walking through a television set. (This book was published before The Wizard of Oz became an annual television staple; making Snow less of an ironic commentator here and more a lucky guesser.) Their guide: a wooden clown named Twiffle. For a moment, remembering the last clown in Oz, I gulped, but, fortunately, this particular clown, perhaps because he’s made of wood and does not bother to spend the book putting on pointless disguises, fares much better and is quite delightful.

Twiffle works for a kinda Evil Wizard named Conjo, the same guy who—remarkable coincidence—enchanted the Love Magnet stolen by the Shaggy Man so many years ago. (Who would have guessed that kinda Evil Wizards are behind the whole concept of sucking people into television?) Conjo is delighted to meet the children, since he has wanted a captive audience for his magic tricks. But when the Shaggy Man arrives for a little Love Magnet repair—er, this is a lot less filthy than I may have just made it sound—Conjo seizes the chance to head to Oz, where, he thinks, he can gain an even larger audience.

This forces the Shaggy Man, the twins and Twiffle to head to Oz by magical airmobile, beaver-pulled boats, and the old tunnel built by the Nome King. (Here, Snow’s generally encyclopedic knowledge of Oz failed him: Ozma had magically closed the tunnel with solid earth. But perhaps the tunnel had later magically opened, or, more likely, the Nomes had decided to rebuild it so that they could sneak into a couple of the Emerald City’s marvelous parties. I could see that.) The theme of audience and actor continues when they find themselves trapped in the Valley of Romance, a place that continuously produces the same very bad play over and over. It’s up to the clown to rescue the Shaggy Man from the cast and the children from the audience. Other highlights include the self-absorbed people of Hightown (presumably Snow’s mockery of his New York City neighbors), the fairy beavers, and some very annoyed fire creatures of the Deadly Desert who would like everyone to leave their ecology alone, thanks.

One oddity—so odd, I had to stop and recheck—an almost complete lack of Ozma fail. The Girl Ruler responds intelligently to a problem, solves a riddle, helps capture the bad guy, and helps restore the Wizard of Oz’s little magic bag. (It’s all the more satisfying since the villain makes a few snide comments about Ozma being just a girl.) Astonishing, I realize. I almost didn’t know who I was reading about. Either Jack Snow decided, gallantly enough, to try to restore Ozma’s reputation, or the young Ozma finally realized that she desperately needed a publicist.

Snow seems to have spiraled into an emotional and nervous breakdown after finishing this book. How much of this breakdown stemmed from the frustrating process of writing the book and fighting with Reilly and Lee is not known, and we can only speculate on how the Oz series might have developed had Snow had sympathetic, helpful and responsive editors. As it was, even this weaker second book was better than Thompson’s first book and all of John R. Neill’s books (although I grant with Neill that’s not saying much.) It’s safe to say that Oz could have thrived under his further guidance. Instead, Snow stopped writing Oz books. (As far as I know, the manuscript of a rumored third book, featuring Polychrome as a central character, has never been found; I am not sure if this is a book Snow actually wrote or just talked about writing but never finished.) But Snow did leave two further legacies for Oz fans: Who’s Who in Oz, an encyclopedia detailing the fairyland he had helped to illuminate, and a list of people who would become the first members of the International Wizard of Oz club, a group that dedicated themselves to finding and keeping Oz and Oz-related material in print. And, of course, Snow had shown, once again, that Oz was a place that could be developed by anyone’s imagination.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, since her television has so far stubbornly refused to open up roadways to Oz.


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