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.
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.