It seems fitting that my journey through the Oz books took a brief hiatus between The Emerald City of Oz and The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Baum himself took a three-year break between the two books. The seventh book in the series opens when a Munchkin named Ojo and his Uncle pay a visit to the Crooked Magician, Dr. Pipt. We soon learn that Dr. Pipt created the magic powder that brought such characters as Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump to life in earlier books. In this novel, Dr. Pipt’s wife Margolotte has sewn together a girl from a patchwork quilt. Dr. Pipt plans to bring the patchwork girl to life so she can be Margolotte’s servant. The reason she’s made from a patchwork quilt is to look sufficiently different from the Munchkins that she’ll stand out and be recognized immediately as a servant. Margolotte gives the patchwork girl just enough brains to do her job. Ojo decides to give her some more. Soon afterward, Dr. Pipt sprinkles on the powder of life and the patchwork girl springs to life. In a terrible accident, another potion is knocked over, petrifying both Margolotte and Ojo’s uncle. Ojo, along with the patchwork girl, now named Scraps, and the crooked magician’s glass cat go on a quest to find the items needed to restore Margolotte and Unc Nunkie to life.
Ojo and Scraps hunt for the yellow brick road. Along the way, they discover an enclosed area of forest and meet a creature called the Woozy, essentially an animal made of box-shapes with just three hairs growing from the tip of its tail. Those three hairs are one of the spell ingredients, but they can’t pull the hairs out, so they bring the Woozy along with them. They soon find their way to the yellow brick road and get to the Emerald City where Dorothy and Toto join the quest.
For the most part, The Patchwork Girl of Oz has been my favorite of the books so far. It has a tight, breezy plot and there are solid stakes. I care about Ojo rescuing his uncle. Also, we meet some truly unique characters in this book. Scraps is delightful. The glass cat with its red heart and pink brains is a little bit of a jerk but still engaging and an imaginative creation. Sadly, the book also gives us a song about “coal-black Lulu” and a scene with Tottenhots, a play on the word Hottentots, which is a Dutch word which has at times referred specifically to South Africa’s Khoikhoi people, and at other times has been applied to all black people in South Africa. The Tottenhots are described as “imps” and John R. Neill’s illustrations of them evoke stereotypical depictions of black people.
Of course, when the book came out in 1913, such depictions were widely accepted and not seen as problematic. Baum and Neill can and should be viewed in the context of their times, but we also need to remember that their society was a casually racist one. I get the feeling Baum was struggling a bit with society’s attitudes about race in this book. Scraps is “born” to be a servant, but she demonstrates she’s as clever as anyone else and never sees herself as anyone’s slave. At the end of the book Ozma reaffirms Scraps’ freedom from servitude. When we get near the book’s ending, Ojo runs into difficulty when the Tin Woodsman won’t let him pluck a wing from a butterfly, because it would be cruel to a living creature. As we’ve seen along the way, many creatures in Oz, including some insects, are sentient and can talk.
In 1891, Baum wrote an editorial advocating the extermination of Native Americans. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed the challenges of admiring artwork by artists with problematic histories. While it’s not clear that Baum’s views on race glimpsed in The Patchwork Girl of Oz are especially progressive even by 1913 standards, they do seem to have advanced from where they had been two decades earlier. I hope that’s true, because if the Oz books teach us anything, it’s that life is a journey and we learn things along the way. We should always make an effort to be better people today than we were yesterday.