I’ve been pursuing a slow reread of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and have found that they can be nicely divided into groups. Earlier, I reviewed the first three books in the series, or as I like to call them, the Welcome to Oz Trilogy. Today I’m looking at the next three, what I call the Aimless Journeys Trilogy.
Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is Book Four. This one marks the return of the Wizard, who had been absent since he flew away in a balloon in Book One. The story opens with an earthquake in California, which sends Dorothy plummeting down through a crack in the earth. She arrives in an underground country, and is soon joined by the Wizard, who came falling down by the same method. Dorothy, the Wizard and a few friends join together to travel through different countries underground, meeting strange and usually threatening people along the way, hoping to get back to the surface. Spoiler: They eventually do, by a severe act of deus ex machina.
You probably already see why I’ve titled this trilogy as I have. While there is loosely a quest to get back to the surface, the characters are basically wandering through magical countries with no particular purpose. The things they encounter are charming and interesting, and I do love how absolutely anything can be possible, but the book overall suffers from a lack of plot to drive the events forward.
Book Five is The Road to Oz, in which Dorothy and the Shaggy Man set out on a path in Kansas, and find themselves inexplicably on a road through a magical country instead. Along the way they meet Polychrome, the daughter of the rainbow, and Button Bright, a little boy perpetually getting lost. As you probably can guess, the rest of the book is devoted to traveling through interesting locales and meeting strange people. The goal here is even less compelling than in the previous one–they’re hoping to get to Oz for Princess Ozma’s birthday party.
I don’t remember having any trouble with the idea as a kid, but as an adult, it’s hard not to feel that this is THE most meaningless of quests.
The positive side to this book is the characters, as both the Shaggy Man and Polychrome go on to be regulars, and Polychrome in particular is a delight.
The Emerald City of Oz comes next, and is slightly more complicated. It opens with a beautiful touch of realism and genuine threat. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are going to lose their Kansas farm; it was so expensive rebuilding after Dorothy’s tornado carried away the house that they had to get a mortgage and now can’t pay off the debts. This problem is, of course, swiftly solved by the entire family decamping to Oz. I do love that in the books, unlike the movie, not only was Oz NOT a dream, eventually Aunt Em and Uncle Henry move there to stay too.
After the family comes to the Emerald City, Ozma decides to send them off on a trip to explore some little-visited parts of Oz, bringing us back to the format of an aimless journey. Meanwhile, in another narrative strand, the wicked Nome King is plotting to conquer Oz. Unfortunately, this turns into a series of expeditions to recruit different fierce creatures to join his army.
Like the previous two books, the journey features lots of interesting sights and people (my favorite is a town inhabited by people made of puzzle pieces) but it also loses drive.
This is also not a good book for Ozma. Again, I never noticed this as a kid–but as an adult, Ozma is troubling. She has a tendency to direct everyone else’s lives for them (because she always knows best…) and she is good and pure and sweet to the point of insanity. An army is marching on Oz intending to destroy everything and enslave everyone, and Ozma’s plan is, I quote “I will speak to them pleasantly, and perhaps they won’t be so very bad after all.” Ahem.
The innocence of Oz is a good bit of its charm, but now and then Baum goes a little too far…
These books have interesting characters and magic, but with the absence of a real plot or any notable character growth, these are not some of the stronger offerings in the series. I think Baum was genuinely struggling at this point; he didn’t want to keep writing Oz (and he tries to do away with it forever at the end of Book Six) but the public demanded it.
Baum must have made some kind of peace with the situation, because he gets his stride back in the later Oz books. Journeying through strange locales stays a common feature, but he manages to put it into better plotlines, and comes up with some particular vivid pieces of magic. I’m still working my way through the series, but I remember some favorites in the later volumes!
I would recommend these three, with reservations. A young reader might be less bothered by the lack of plot (and engaged by the magic). More discerning readers (of any age) would probably enjoy any one of these…but I don’t recommend all three in a row!