What was happening – literarily – in 1900? Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzche died, Zelda Fitzgerald and Margaret Mitchell were born, and Winston Churchill wrote a memoir of his experience in the Boer War.
This book is one of the few books that is actually less complicated than the film it inspired. Most people have likely seen the movie, commensurately fewer of them have actually read the book. Reading the book is interesting after having seen the movie. First, the iconic items from the movie – the ruby slippers – aren’t ruby at all in the book. They are silver. A second important talismanic object that figures in the book is a golden cap, which doesn’t come into the movie at all (maybe it would’ve messed up Judy Garland’s hair?). Dorothy is ten, a child, and not a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, as she was depicted in the movie.
The most important distinction between the movie and the book, though, is that in the book, Oz is not a fevered figment of Dorothy’s imagination. The book does not delve into Dorothy’s psychology. There are no parallels between characters from Kansas appearing in Oz – the witch is just a witch, not a mean neighbor, and the scarecrow is just a scarecrow, not a counterpoint to the hired man who is a friend of Dorothy’s. At it’s core, it is a children’s story about a world apart to which she is carried by a tornado.
I’m not saying that the book isn’t meaningful. It was among the first American books published for specifically for children. Dorothy, 10 years old, had British counterparts in Alice and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, but the Wizard of Oz is more simply a fairy story for children than either Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. It is delightful to read – Baum’s imagination is prodigious, and Oz is a wonderful place, a vividly rendered counterpoint to the grey Kansas that Dorothy left behind but yearns to return to. It is a book about love, and about the fact that love is what makes a place lovely.
I liked it for what it was – a simple fantasy story about a girl who is lost and has to find her way home. I’m not sure that I’ll ever read the sequels, but I’m not sorry that I read this one.