I’ve been doing a slow reread of the Oz series by L. Frank Baum, and blogging on subsets of books as I go. If you missed them, you can read my reviews of Books 1-3 (The Welcome to Oz Trilogy) and Books 4-6 (The Aimless Journeys Trilogy). Today, I’m skipping past Book 7 until a later grouping, and looking at Books 8-10–as I like to call them, The Non-Oz Oz Trilogy.
It’s known history that Baum didn’t really want to keep writing Oz books. He wanted to write other magical adventures, but the public (and I assume his publisher) kept insisting they wanted Oz. I blame this lack of interest on Baum’s part for the so-so quality of The Aimless Journeys Trilogy. Fortunately (in my opinion) he found a different solution later in the series, by writing Oz books…that aren’t really Oz books.
Book 8, Tik-Tok of Oz, begins in a backwater corner of Oz with Queen Anne of Oogaboo, who decides to gather all the men in her kingdom (eighteen) and go conquer the world. Meanwhile, Betsy Bobbin and Hank the mule are victims of a shipwreck, which lands them in the magical Rose Kingdom. Betsy eventually meets the Shaggy Man, who is on a quest to find his lost brother. They’re joined by Tik-Tok and Polychrome, and eventually the group meets up with Queen Anne and her party, and the whole lot of them go to confront the wicked Nome King, who is holding Shaggy’s brother captive.
The plot is made to sound more complicated than it is by the wide ensemble of characters, but apart from the difficulties of getting everyone together, it’s basically a quest story that quickly becomes an extended confrontation with the Nome King–and features a side-journey through the center of the Earth to a land of Fairies. Random though it may be at times, I love that there is a goal, and a valid one. Rescuing a long-lost brother is a much better focus than journeying to Ozma’s birthday party (Book 5). The confrontation with the Nome King also presents a real villain, and one who interacts with the characters throughout the book instead of merely appearing at the end, as happens in other volumes.
I quite enjoy this installment–there are some lovely images and magic, especially in the Land of Fairies, and the Nome King is an effective villain (more so here than at other times). Betsy is a perfectly acceptable “sweet girl heroine” (a character-type Baum used often) and I always enjoy Polychrome.
But is this an Oz book? Well…after the first chapter, we don’t get back to Oz until the last two chapters. Tik-Tok and the Shaggy Man are the only familiar characters who are from Oz (Polychrome isn’t). Really it’s more of a Nome King story…with some Oz accents.
Book 9, The Scarecrow of Oz, is really a Trot-and-Cap’n-Bill story. Baum wrote two previous books about little girl Trot and her sailor friend Cap’n Bill, and then decided to send them to Oz. The two are sucked down into a whirlpool while out sailing, and find themselves trapped in a cavern. A series of adventures gets them out of the cavern and leads them to join up with the flying Ork (one of Baum’s stranger creatures) and old friend Button Bright.
They eventually reach Oz–but land in Jinxland, which is cut off by mountains from the rest of Oz. There they get involved with local politics, fighting King Krewl and an evil witch who stole the throne from…well, either Princess Gloria or gardener Pon, depending how you look at it. Ozma sends the Scarecrow along to help, and to lend his name to the title.
This is one of my favorite books in the series. I like Trot and Cap’n Bill quite a bit. Their friendship is sweet and Cap’n Bill, with his wooden leg and past sailing life, has a little more depth than you see in most Baum characters. They also tend to have adventures that feel genuinely hazardous. Not too hazardous–Baum is always light and whimsical–but when they’re trapped in the cavern and low on fresh water, it feels like real danger, unlike when Dorothy fell through the earth in an earthquake (Book 4).
This book also has the benefit of one of the very few romances in Oz, between Pon and Gloria. It’s not one of the great romances of literature…but hey, it’s there!
But like Tik-Tok of Oz, this isn’t really an Oz book. Technically Jinxland is in Oz, but for all intents and purposes it might as well not be, meaning we don’t properly get to Oz until the last few chapters. Really it’s a Trot-and-Cap’n-Bill book, with the Scarecrow in a guest appearance.
Of all the non-Oz Oz books, Rinkitink in Oz is the most strikingly non-Oz. The story is about Prince Inga, whose tiny island country was conquered and his parents and people taken away to be slaves. Fortunately, Inga possesses three magic pearls–one that gives great strength, another that grants invulnerability, and a third that speaks wisdom. With his friend King Rinkitink, Inga sets off to rescue his people, running into a series of dangers along the way, and is eventually forced to confront the Nome King to rescue his parents.
Where, you ask, does Oz come into this? Well, Baum originally wrote this as a non-Oz book, with no connection at all. Then he changed it–and this is the one time I think the public’s preference for Oz harmed one of the books. At the very end of the story, Dorothy shows up in a complete deus ex machina to scold the Nome King and solve all the problems.
I wish I knew what the original ending was, because the existing one is disappointing. Inga was an effective and likable hero throughout the book, who deserved a heroic end to his story. Instead Dorothy arrives…and all the tension leaves. She’s blissfully confident she can handle the Nome King, she brings the Wizard along as back-up, and Ozma is keeping an eye out just in case. This may point to one problem Baum was having writing Oz stories–he had made his characters too powerful to sustain plots.
Ending aside, Rinkitink is actually one of my favorite “Oz” books. Prince Inga, his island kingdom, and his magic pearls are as delightful as anything going on in Oz–and like Tik-Tok, the book is driven by a real goal, Inga’s desire to rescue his family.
Personally, I don’t mind at all if Baum wanted to give us non-Oz stories and stick Oz in the title. I know some readers object that these books aren’t really about Oz characters (mostly) but I find the characters who are here to be just as engaging–and I can’t say I strongly miss the ones who aren’t present.
I’ve read Baum’s books that really aren’t part of the Oz series, and they tend to be very much the same–whimsical fantasies with strange creatures and kingdoms, and sweet boys or girls making their way through them. That’s the case for the truly Oz books, and for these three too. If you’re open to new landscapes and new characters, I find these three to be strong contributors to the series.