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Finding Oz

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. Evan I. Schwartz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Hardcover. xiv+374pp. $28.00. ISBN 978-0-547-05510-7.

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Reviewed by Richard Tuerk


[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 109/110.]

Evan I. Schwartz’s book is a well written adventure story tracing the genesis of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Other books, most notably Katharine M. Rogers’s L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, treat Baum’s entire life. Schwartz’s work focuses on twenty years of Baum’s life, from 1880 to 1900, during which, Schwartz claims, Baum conceived of and wrote his masterpiece. After briefly summarizing Baum’s childhood, Schwartz’s book starts with his meeting of his wife-to-be, Maud Gage, daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, the great woman’s rights activist, and ends with his establishment as a very successful author of children’s literature. More important, however, is Schwartz’s attempt to trace Baum’s quest for his true self.

Rather than writing a biography, Schwartz writes what he calls “a transformation-of-consciousness story” (288) in which he says that Baum finally found “happiness and harmony” (296). Schwartz insists that Baum is the true hero of the story. Naturally, such a tale involves a great deal of speculation on the author’s part as well as a strong reliance on theories of psychology, especially Jungian psychology as interpreted by Joseph Campbell.

Recently, several biographies of Baum have appeared, advertised as books for children. I’ve seen Finding Oz advertised as being for children ten and up. However, Jung and Campbell, at least as Schwartz uses them, seem pretty heavy stuff for ten-year-olds, as do many of the other things Schwartz discusses, such as detailed treatment of American attitudes and Baum’s changing attitudes toward Native Americans, Schwartz’s treatment of Theosophy, and his discussions of the teachings and activities of Baum’s mother-in-law. It seems to me that the intended audience of the work is clearly adult.

Schwartz does an excellent job putting Baum’s life into the context of American history and culture but often has a little more trouble putting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into the contexts that he explores so well. He nicely traces the ways Baum’s attitudes changed toward Native Americans during his years in Aberdeen, South Dakota, including his infamous call for the extermination of the Native Americans. But then he treats the call for extermination as a source of great guilt for Baum from which he could only escape by atoning “for his small role in the great American tragedy that had just transpired [that is, the wars against the Native Americans, especially the Battle of Wounded Knee], to somehow commemorate those whom he had wronged with his bitter pen” (189). Schwartz explains the poppy field in Baum’s book as a “powerful symbol” of Baum’s sorrow over destruction of Native American cultures and buffalo (190). Yet he presents no textual support for any of these ideas and really no explanation for them. According to Schwartz, atonement for Baum takes place in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls asleep in the poppy field: then, “she becomes metaphorically at one with the dead spirits.” And he adds that being “‘at one’ is to ‘atone.’“ Again, however, Schwartz does not support this assertion by showing exactly how the poppy field has anything to do with Native Americans or explaining how Dorothy’s sleeping indicates she is at one with anything. Certainly, the poppies’ being red does not in itself align them with Native Americans. In fact, it seems at times as though everywhere Schwartz looks in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he sees Native Americans. He sees Baum’s entitling a chapter “The Council of the Munchkins” as a reference to the words “Tribal council” which, he says, “is the signature term for a Native American political structure” (275). He compares the Winkies, whom the Wicked Witch of the West enslaves, to the Native Americans lorded over by “frontier forts” and corralled “onto reservations” (276). And he says that in the Quadling country, where the people are “a good-natured tribe of stocky people dressed all in red,” readers find “perhaps the clearest reference to Native Americans in the tale” (287). Yet I have no idea how wearing red makes the Quadlings into a clear reference to Native Americans.

As a result of his guilt and atonement over calling for the extermination of the Native Americans, Baum, according to Schwartz, “wouldn’t succumb to the terrible allure of racism and prejudice ever again” (277). Yet as studies by several critics, including me, show, Baum’s work is rife with racism. In fact, in its magnificent edition of Baum’s Oz books (1985-2000), HarperCollins bowdlerized some parts of the books to eliminate racism.

Schwartz at times also relies on supposition when he relates episodes in the book to Baum’s life. For example, he sees Baum’s unpleasant experiences as a traveling salesman for a firm that sells chinaware as somehow analogous to Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion’s search for the Wicked Witch of the West. Baum’s uncertainty about his future while he sold chinaware, is, Schwartz feels, reflected in the search for the Witch. While such a comparison may be interesting, I am not sure that it illuminates the book. For that matter, I guess that Baum had a number of other experiences in which he felt uncertain about the future that could just as easily be compared to the companions’ journey to the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. Nor am I sure that there is, as Schwartz asserts, any connection between Baum’s selling chinaware and the chapter of Baum’s book entitled “The Dainty China Country,” a land the companions reach on their way south to see Glinda, since in it Baum treats not chinaware but china dolls.

Schwartz follows others in showing that the idea that Baum’s book is a parable of Populism is utterly false. Yet Schwartz himself makes the book into a kind of parable of Theosophy. In fact, he states explicitly that Baum’s book takes “the reader on a journey guided by Eastern philosophy” (265). Yet just as the reader need know nothing about Populism to enjoy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so the reader need know nothing about Theosophy or its embodiment of Eastern philosophy. Although I am not sure that most of the information Schwartz gives about Theosophy is in any way relevant to Baum’s book (or even Baum’s life), it is fascinating. He explains Theosophy more clearly and in more detail than any other book I have read about Baum. In the last analysis, however, I think Michael Patrick Hearn correctly notes about Baum’s attitude toward Theosophy, “Whether he actually believed all this is debatable” (xciii). That he used some Theosophical beliefs in his writing is undeniable, but that the tenets of Theosophy are central to and extensively embodied in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also highly debatable. Such readings seem to ignore the strong surface texture of Baum’s book and the power of the story itself and the characters in it.

One other problem, I feel, is that Schwartz tries too hard to connect the 1939 motion picture, The Wizard of Oz, staring Judy Garland, directly to the book. He argues that since Maud Baum was a consultant to the making of the film, Baum’s ideas must be embodied in the film, and he sometimes seems to confuse book and film. He writes that when they first meet the Wizard, the four companions see him as “a giant head who bellows mean and terrible things” (139), yet that idea is embodied in the movie, not the book. In the book, each companion sees the Wizard as something different. Only Dorothy sees him as a giant head, and there is no indication in Baum’s words that the Wizard “bellows.”

Finally, Schwartz makes at least one additional misstatement about Baum’s book. He calls the Good Witch of the North the “old, wrinkled, white-haired sister of the young and beautiful Glinda” (274), although the book gives no indication that they are sisters. In the 1939 movie, the old Good Witch of the North is entirely absent, but the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East are sisters, a relationship that Baum hints at in no way.

A bibliography would have made it much easier for scholars and others to follow Schwartz’s sources. Schwartz gives extensive notes, but it is often difficult to tell to what work each note refers.

It is relatively easy to find problems in a book as long as Schwartz’s. In spite of its inaccuracies and unsupported speculations, Schwartz tells a very good story, and that, after all, is his aim. The book is very interesting and well written. It has a much tighter focus than other books on Baum’s life, although even there, the book, I feel, would have been helped by omitting much of the speculation involving the 1939 movie. Nonetheless, Schwartz has produced a readable, exciting book that truly does depict Baum as a quest hero.


Works Cited

Hearn, Michael Patrick. The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Centennial ed. New York: Norton, 2000.

Rogers, Katharine M. L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2002.


Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. Evan I. Schwartz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Hardcover. xiv+374pp. $28.00. ISBN 978-0-547-05510-7.

Buy Online