What are we going to do tonight, Queen Ann?

“The same thing we do every night, Private Files. Try to take over the world!”

Okay, Tik-Tok of Oz doesn’t actually start out like an episode of Pinky and the Brain, but I was reminded of the show when Queen Ann Soforth of Oogaboo decides to lead the eighteen men of her country out to conquer the world. Meanwhile a young girl named Betsy Bobbin and her mule Hank find themselves shipwrecked in a strange fairyland. They go on a quest to find a safe refuge, when they come upon a greenhouse, which is the home of the Rose Kingdom. While they’re there, the Shaggy Man from earlier Oz books literally drops through the roof. The flowers of the Rose Kingdom send Betsy, Hank and the Shaggy Man on their way along with their newly plucked queen who they’ve decided to reject, a cousin of Princess Ozma named Ozga. We soon learn the Shaggy Man is on a quest to find his brother. Princess Ozma discovered the Shaggy Man’s brother was a captive of recurring villain, the Nome King Ruggero.

On their way to the Nome Kingdom, our band meets Polychrome, the rainbow’s daughter who we last met in The Road to Oz. A little further along the road, they come upon a well and find the title character, Tik-Tok, the machine man of Oz. Tik-Tok has long been one of my favorite steampunk-like creations. For all intents and purposes, he’s a true clockwork robot. His thinking, speech, and movements all have to be wound up to work. It turns out that Princess Ozma teleported Tik-Tok to help the Shaggy Man in his quest. Unfortunately, Ruggero found him first and dumped him down the well.

By and by, our two bands encounter each other. Queen Ann’s army consists of sixteen officers and one soldier. The one soldier, Private Files, defects when he doesn’t want to harm the Rose Queen Ozga, Betsy Bobbin, or Polychrome. Queen Ann then recruits Tik-Tok to be her army. The mechanical man agrees under the condition that the first place they invade is the Nome Kingdom, which will, in turn, help the Shaggy Man in his quest.

Despite the title, the book is more about the Shaggy Man and the Nome King than Tik-Tok. Still, I enjoy seeing Tik-Tok in this book. There’s a nice moment near the end of the book where Ozma uses a two-way communication device to talk to the Shaggy Man while watching him through her magic picture. I couldn’t help but think that L. Frank Baum had anticipated video chat in his 1914 novel. Dorothy and her little dog Toto only appear briefly at the end, but we have a wonderful moment where we learn why Toto only barks and wags his tail when other animals who come to Oz, such as Billina the Yellow Hen, learn how to talk.

As with The Patchwork Girl of Oz, I was swept along by the quest story. This one felt different from earlier ones in the series, and I had the sense that Baum was growing more comfortable telling stories with his troupe of characters and bringing new characters into the mix to add spice. That noted, it didn’t seem that Baum paid as much attention to continuity in this volume as earlier books in the series. Polychrome didn’t seem to remember meeting the Shaggy Man back in The Road to Oz. Also, Tik-Tok felt as though he was played more for comedy here rather than being the stalwart defender of his friends. Still, after trying to eschew the series and move on, it feels like Baum is now having fun with these characters and I’m glad to keep reading and having fun as well.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz

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.

The Wizard’s Return to Oz

My wife and I share a love of great science fiction and fantasy. When we met, she had a large collection of great books and that collection has only grown. In that collection were most of the 29 Oz novels published by Del Rey Books in the 1980s. These were lovely editions of the novels featuring realistic covers by Michael Herring, inspired by John R. Neill’s original illustrations. I went back to the shelf the other day to appreciate them, when I learned this month was the 165th birthday of L. Frank Baum, the original Royal Historian of Oz.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Oz novels. In a very real way, they were the first long-running fantasy series. They inspired early silent movies and Baum even created a comic strip featuring some of the Oz characters. The first novel in the series would, of course, inspire one of Hollywood’s most famous films, the 1939 Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. It’s a truly magical and wondrous film, but it’s really only the beginning of the trip down the proverbial yellow brick road. You don’t have to read many of the books to see that Baum had an incredible imagination. Each book features a whole array of new and colorful characters and creatures.

I’m sorry to say I haven’t read quite as many of the books as I should, and I’ve vowed to continue my journey through Oz. Until this month, I’d read the first three novels in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz. So, I embarked on book four, The Wizard and the Dorothy in Oz. Of course, time is always a factor, and it’s not always easy to just pick up one book when I already have an extensive to-read pile threatening to topple over. This is when I had a sudden epiphany and realized Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain. I soon discovered that free audio editions of the books exist on Librivox.org. What’s more, the books are almost the perfect length to listen to during my commute from home to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. So, now, I get to commute to work via the marvelous land of Oz!

As Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz opens, Dorothy and her Uncle Henry are visiting friends and relatives in California. As Dorothy meets up with Zeb the farm hand, an earthquake opens a fissure, sending them plummeting into the Earth along with Jim the Cab Horse and Dorothy’s kitten, Eureka. Fortunately, air gets thicker the further they go into the Earth and they land gently in a country inhabited by intelligent vegetables. Soon, the great and powerful Oz, the wizard who departed in a hot air balloon at the end of the first book reappears and joins Dorothy. All together they begin a quest to return to the surface world where they belong. Along the way they meet wooden gargoyles, invisible bears (oh my!), and even dragons. Eventually, in something of a deus ex machina twist, they end up in Oz, where their friend, Princess Ozma welcomes them with open arms. The wizard returns as a permanent resident of Oz, though he’s no longer the guy in charge.

The book takes some dark turns as our heroes travel from one dangerous land to another. What’s more, their troubles don’t end when they reach Oz. Jim finds himself in conflict with the sawhorse, who is faster and more robust its flesh-and-blood counterpart. Also, Eureka is put on trial when it’s suspected she ate Princess Ozma’s pet piglet. The book is not without its flaws, but it presents an original adventure with imaginative creatures and never once talks down to the kids in its audience. I’m looking forward to taking more trips to the land of Oz and seeing whatever strange folks I’ll meet.