Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Dimness in Fairyland: The Enchanted Island of Oz

Oz publishers Reilly and Lee’s decision to stop printing Oz books did not, of course, stop the Royal Historians (and many many others) from writing them. Nor did it stop Oz fans from wanting still more Oz books. (Let’s face it: forty books just isn’t enough for some people.)

So in the 1970s, the International Wizard of Oz Club, with full permission from Reilly and Lee, decided to solve both problems by printing additional books by the Royal Historians of Oz, beginning with Ruth Plumly Thompson, who had contributed so many works to the series. Other publishers followed suit, adding to the Oz series books now considered fully or semi-canonical by Oz fans, who often use the term “Quasi-Famous” to describe these additions to the Famous Forty books. I’ll be looking at a few (not all) of these books in the next few weeks, starting with Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Enchanted Island of Oz.

The Enchanted Island of Oz has all of the elements that Thompson had made part of her oeuvre: a tiny kingdom (this time, a certain Kapurta, accidentally turned into a sky island by a poorly spoken wish), the various side trips, the charming talking animal, the American boy delighted to be on an adventure, but with no desire to remain in Oz, and of course the puns. Lots of puns. Perhaps that very familiarity accounts for the general feeling of we’ve read this all before.

In this case, the young American child is named David. His charming animal companion is Humpty Bumpty, a talking camel from Oz that David accidentally frees from an American circus. The puns include a town called Somewhere, filled with residents who are all Somebody Important, except for the footmen who follow them around (presumably, if you are Somebody Important, you must have servants), a town called Dwindlebury where everyone, well, dwindles, and Dog Wood, filled of course, with dogwood trees, each hosting a little dog house. And in a now sadly typical example of Ozma fail, the supposedly wise and kindly Ruler has failed to notice that a portion of Oz is now floating in the sky. Sigh.

And yet, everything seems somehow dimmer. David may share Speedy and Peter’s sense of responsibility to relatives back home, but he lacks Speedy’s ambition and drive, and Peter’s zest for adventure and lust for treasure. Humpty lacks the vibrancy and personality quirks of Thompson’s other popular talking animal characters, and decidedly seems a touch more neurotic—he seems devastated by David’s desire to return home, even though he hasn’t even known the kid that long, no matter what adventures they might have had together. The whole tale has the feel of merely going through the motions, of retelling a tale Thompson had told many times before, instead of bursting with delight in new wordplay and adventure, or reimagining fairy tale tropes as she had done in her best Oz books.

And although the book is fairly short, it somehow feels long, perhaps because few of the encounters really seem to be heading anywhere. David and Humpty meet a group of people, run away from that group of people, meet another group of people, run away from that group of people, and so on, but although this might seem to fit an overall theme or plot of run away, run away, it instead creates a feel of short, mostly disconnected episodes that don’t seem to go anywhere. As it turns out, the penultimate encounter does explain just how David and Humpty got to Oz—but fails to explain why they had to make so many rather pointless stops along the way.

Too, this 1970s book suggests that the post-war era and the 1960s had largely passed Thompson by. The book is, thankfully, free of the racist images and language that marred some of the latter Thompson books, but as a whole, the book seems rooted in the past, making me wonder if the book was in fact written in the 1930s and merely cleaned up for publication in the 1970s.

A few details do suggest that Enchanted Island, written in the 1970s or not, was not originally written as an Oz book: an unusually awkward transition to the traditional End of the Book Party at the Emerald City, and a very awkward and out of character appearance by the Tin Woodman, a character Thompson had never done well in previous books in any case. The courtly, dandified and utterly kindly Tin Woodman is here transformed into a folksy sort who casually invites David and Humpty to a party at the Emerald City, and then takes off without them, leaving them to navigate the frequently dangerous lands of Oz alone, assuring them that they can come along later.

Which begs several questions: when in this party? Is the Tin Woodman trying to arrive early, or make his new found acquaintance look either terribly rude or fashionably late? And does every visitor to Oz automatically get an invite to a major party attended by the most exclusive members of Ozma’s court—and if so, what do the ordinary citizens of Oz, who never seem to get invited to these sorts of parties, think about this sort of thing? (Other Royal Historians assure us that Ozma throws the occasional party for ordinary folks as well, but either they are attempting to improve Ozma’s reputation, or Thompson just preferred to ignore that low-class sort of thing.)

I find I don’t have much else to say about this book. It’s a pleasant read, and a nice gift to Oz fans needing another Oz book, and Oz completists will certainly want to hunt it down, but it’s certainly not the best example of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s work.

Even indifferent Oz books have not been able to stop Mari Ness from hoping that she might get to go to Oz one day. Meanwhile, she lives in central Florida.


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