Remembering Oz

I have written this essay many times over.  Starting out, I merely meant to review Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, edited by John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen.  Oz Reimagined is a new collection of short stories inspired by the Oz books by L. Frank Baum.  That led to trying to explain what the Oz books were, and finally, trying to psychologically explore what reading those stories in childhood meant to me.  Cramming a full memoir and literary study into one blog post of a few thousand words is very difficult.

Fifty-one years ago, when I was ten, I discovered the magical world of libraries, and a set of moldy old books with Oz in each title. CBS began showing the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz every year around Christmas since I was eight and it had a huge impact on me.  So discovering two rows of Oz books at Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1962 was a major find.  I was just discovering the world of books, and I hadn’t understood that movies were often based on books.  Nor did I know about series books – what a fantastic idea, returning to the same fantasyland again and again.  When I first started reading for fun, all I read was series books, starting with the Oz books, then Danny Dunn, Tom Swift and on to the Hardy Boys.  The Oz books had started my lifelong addiction to fiction.

OzReimagined_V1_B

The Oz books were not as dazzling as the MGM movie, but they were incredibly far out.  I can’t recommend that you run out and read the Oz books, because you need to discover them when you are young to come under their spell.  The Oz books aren’t like the Harry Potter novels where both young and old can enjoy them.  Nor do I think they are well written.  So I thought it strange that Adams and Cohen would be trying to sell Oz stories to adults.  Is there a large enough market of people who discovered Oz books as kids who might want to return to Oz as adults?

The original Oz novels were seriously whacked – beyond bizarre, but not clever like Alice in Wonderland.  Oz was not a gentle children’s world like Winnie the Pooh, but more cracked like Dr. Seuss.  They were aimed at older children who could read a three hundred page book.     If you want to get an idea of what the Oz books were like, Mari Ness over at Tor.com has been rereading all 40 books in the Oz series.  Follow the link to see the covers of the books I found in the library 51 years ago.  If you click on the title beside each cover you can read Mari’s summary with critical comments.  This is about the best introduction to the Oz books for an adult that I can find.  You can also go to Gutenberg.com and read the original books.

Rereading them now brings back memories, but not the experiences I felt when I first read them.  This is embarrassing to admit, but when I was ten I wanted to believe that Oz existed.  I knew Oz was made up, but it was so charming I wanted it to exist.  It’s a kind of meta-magic.  Oz makes you want to believe in magic.  I think all kids want to believe in magic.  But when we get old we become skeptical.  However, with all the fantasy in our culture, I get the feeling many adults wish that magic existed for them too.  But how many adults really loved the recent Oz The Great and Powerful?  Why is Oz suddenly making a pop culture comeback?  Some people are trying to elevate L. Frank Baum’s stories into American fairytales.  Oz Reimagined attempts to build the classic Oz characters into archetypes, which makes me wonder just how deeply rooted Oz is in our subconscious minds?  How many Americans know of Oz outside of one great movie and Wicked?

oz_the_great_and_powerful 

There are other embarrassing things to confess.  Reading Oz books brainwashed me.  Even though the books aren’t particularly well written, and were childish even to my childish mind, they did a number of me.  And if you read far and wide, you’ll find a lot of people who grew up between 1900 and 1970 that also imprinted on Oz.  As a child, Oz books had a far greater impact on me than the more famous brainwashing Bible and going to church.  It’s funny, but fantasy books, science fiction and religion all have common themes that prey on young minds.

I have fond memories of reading those Oz books and daydreaming about magical worlds as a kid, but when I look now at the books I have to wonder what a goob I must have been as a kid.  But then all kids were once naïve goobers who will believe anything you tell them.

Okay, after that long introduction I need to get now to reviewing Oz Reimagined.  Why go back?  Why write new stories about Oz?  And it’s strange, I’ve returned to Oz twice in the last couple of months, because Oz The Great and Powerful also came out around the time the book did.  What’s with all these people returning to Oz?   

Within weeks we had a new Oz movie and a new Oz book.  Even if you have no interest in Oz, this is still rather interesting if you are fascinated by the concepts fiction and myths.  In the year 1900, L. Frank Baum published the original Oz story, The Wizard of Oz, and since then there have been hundreds of sequels and many movies based on this imaginary place called Oz.

From time to time, a writer will create characters and a story world that readers just won’t let die.  Think of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Scrooge, Superman, Kirk and Spock, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Harry Potter – maybe you’re surprised by the last one, but just gander at the list of Harry Potter fan fiction stories.  There’s over 645,652 of them.  One measure of obsessive popularity with fictional worlds is fan fiction, where young people write stories set in their favorite fictional worlds.   Just check this list sorted by popularity.   Harry Potter has 645,652 entries, Twilight has 210,560, Lord of the Rings has 49,016, and  Hunger Games has 32,298.  Way down the list, with 42 entries is Oz books.  The young just aren’t interested in Oz anymore, and I doubt the new movie will create many new fan writers.

Fan fiction is an amazing pop culture barometer.  If it existed in 1920, I’m pretty sure Oz books would have topped the list.  Fan fiction shows a deep level of love by some readers for their favorite story worlds and characters.  Most of these entries are just fragments, scenes or short stories, but many are fully developed novels.  For example, Watchers & Dancers is 108,631 word novel that takes The Little Women March sisters from the 19th and puts them in the 21st.  You have to admit that such dedication reveals the power of fiction to inspire the imaginations of young people.

There’s only 42 Oz stories at fanfiction.net.  If we could collect all these Oz inspired stories that’s ever been written, I’d bet there would be thousands.  Oz Reimagined adds 15 more.  But here’s the weird thing, some of the stories in Oz Reimagined are just stories set in Oz, but many stories are about being memed by Oz stories.  I think there are two kinds of grown-ups who read Oz books as a kid.  The first want to return to Oz, and the second want to deprogram themselves from the influence of Oz as a child.  You’re either an Oz believer, or an Oz atheist.  It all depends on your attitude towards magic.

Do you believe in magic?  Did you believe when you were a child?  Do you like reading stories and watching movies even now as a grownup that features magic?   The success of Harry Potter seems to indicate that many of you will answer yes.  Does that reflect a secret longing for magic to exist in our very scientific reality?  Or does it reflect that when were children we thought magic should be real?

Obviously the history of the human race has involved a lot of magic and myths.  I am a solid believer in science, an atheist, and know absolutely that magic does not exist.  Yet, I have this hang-up about Oz. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Oz.  I can’t remember when I first saw the classic MGM film, but I think it was in those twilight years before the beginning of memories and self-awareness.

If you only know of Oz through the famous 1939 movie, then you really don’t know Oz.  The Land of Oz was a powerful fairyland first created in 1900 by L. Frank Baum with his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Baum didn’t intend for it to be a series, but fans wouldn’t let go.  Baum created thirteen more books about the citizens of Oz over the next twenty years, infecting millions of children with a deeply psychological desire for magic.  I read the fourteen Baum books as a child, before switching my reading addiction to science fiction.  I guess if I couldn’t find over the rainbow on Earth, I’d go much further to find it.

Right from the start people tried to ban the Oz books.  The faithful considered them spreading ungodly ideas and undermining gender roles.  Librarians banned them because they believed Oz books gave children unrealistic ideas about reality.

The funny thing is they were right.  Oz books do undermine religion, promote feminism and give kids unrealistic expectations about life.

Is you become addicted to Oz as a child, you’ll spend you’re whole life trying to get back to Oz.  Just read The Number of the Beast – Robert A. Heinlein was a major Oz addict.  For the most part, the Oz books are slowly becoming forgotten, but not their legacy, because stories with magic for children have come to dominate our culture.  Has there been an era that’s embraced fantasy so deeply as now?  Many mainline fantasy hours a day through their television, movie and ebook screens.

However, there must be plenty of readers still discovering the Oz books, because we have this new anthology of original stories set in Oz.

Oz Reimagined, is aimed at an audience I’m be curious to know.  How many kids growing up today read  the original Oz books by L. Frank Baum?   People have been writing new stories set in Oz since 1920 when Baum last title, Glenda of Oz, came out the year after he died.  Wikipedia has a great list of Oz Books.  Writers just can’t forget Oz.  But how many kids today grow up reading the Oz books?  It can’t be many.

And we also know the long checkered history of Oz movies, including the latest, Oz the Great and Powerful, which I thought was beautiful but had too many flaws – and by the way, there’s no sex in Oz, at least not the Oz I grew up with.  The Wizard might have been a humbug, but not a horndog, but that’s my interpretation.  Who brought adulthood to Oz?  Was it Gregory Maguire and his Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, who writes an introduction to this collection?  I don’t know, but probably not.  I haven’t read or seen Wicked, so I don’t know how much current pop culture Oz is related to Maguire’s re-visioning of Oz.

See, that’s the thing about the new anthology, Oz Reimagined, depending on how you picture Oz, will determine how much you enjoy the many types of stories.  This collection isn’t for kids, but a few of the stories are aimed at us who try to remember being kids.  Some of the other stories show a bitterness, maybe from the realization of their Oz addiction is corrupting.  And even other stories show a cynical view, having Dorothy reliving her adventures inside a mental hospital (“One Flew Over the Rainbow” by Robin Wasserman).

There is a common theme in all Oz stories, a search for transcendence from the mundane.  There is a wistful recognition that magic doesn’t exist, but if we could become innocent again it might.  

My favorite of the collection, “Off to See the Emperor” by Orson Scott Card.  It’s the deepest story emotionally, when it comes to remembering being a kid.  I can’t help but wonder if Card’s personal belief in magic – Mormonism – allows him to write such a wonderful story about magic.  Most of the writers in the anthology aren’t true believers.  Magic is just a story gimmick.  It takes powerful writing to make readers believe in magic, or want to believe in magic.  The Harry Potter books are the best example today.

I bought both the Kindle and Audible editions of Oz Reimagined, and have to say the narrators, Nick Podehl and Tanya Eby do such a fantastic job, and I highly recommend getting the audio edition if you decide to try this book.

But in terms of creating a Oz like story for kids, I’d say “The Cobbler of Oz” by Jonathan Maberry came closest to how I remember the books.

The book contains 15 stories plus a forward, “Oz and Ourselves” by Gregory Maguire and an introduction Adams and Cohen.

  1. “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz” by Rae Carson & C.C. Finlay
  2. “Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust” by Seanan McGuire
  3. “Lost Girls of Oz” by Theodora Goss
  4. “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story” by Tad Williams
  5. “Dorothy Dreams” by Simon R. Green
  6. “Dead Blue” by David Farland
  7. “One Flew Over the Rainbow” by Robin Wasserman
  8. “The Veiled Shanghai” by Ken Liu
  9. “Beyond the Naked Eye” by Rachel Swirsky
  10. “A Tornado of Dorothys” by Kat Howard
  11. “Blown Away” by Jane Yolen
  12. “City So Bright” by Dale Bailey
  13. “Off to See the Emperor” by Orson Scott Card
  14. “A Meeting in Oz” by Jeffrey Ford
  15. “The Cobbler of Oz” by Jonathan Maberry

Like Tarzan, or Sherlock Holmes, or even Star Trek, we have discovered that fans of the these original story worlds love them so much they want to return time and again, even after the original author has died.  Unlike these other stories, which are character driven, Oz is really place driven.  We see many new Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Woodsmen, Cowardly Lions and Wizards, but the real appeal of Oz, is it’s rich magical landscape.

You can read the original books at Gutenberg, and I recommend you try them, or a portion of them, to get a feel for what they were like.  Most everyone today knows Oz from reflections and reflections of reflections.  It very important to remember these were books written for kids, and they were written around a hundred years ago when times were much simpler.

magician

Here is  The Patchwork Girl of Oz with the beautiful John R. Neill illustrations from the 1915 edition.  This is how Oz looked when I was first introduced to the books when I was ten.  The story is about a magician who has a potion, The Powder of Life, that will make inanimate objects come to life.  One of his first experiments is on a glass cat, who is also one of the main characters in “The Boy Detective of Oz: An Otherland Story” by Tad Williams, from Oz Reimagined.

The cat was made of glass, so clear and transparent that you could see through it as easily as through a window. In the top of its head, however, was a mass of delicate pink balls which looked like jewels, and it had a heart made of a blood-red ruby. The eyes were two large emeralds, but aside from these colors all the rest of the animal was clear glass, and it had a spun-glass tail that was really beautiful.

"Well, Doc Pipt, do you mean to introduce us, or not?" demanded the cat, in a tone of annoyance. "Seems to me you are forgetting your manners."

"Excuse me," returned the Magician. "This is Unc Nunkie, the descendant of the former kings of the Munchkins, before this country became a part of the Land of Oz."

"He needs a haircut," observed the cat, washing its face.

"True," replied Unc, with a low chuckle of amusement.

"But he has lived alone in the heart of the forest for many years," the Magician explained; "and, although that is a barbarous country, there are no barbers there."

"Who is the dwarf?" asked the cat.

"That is not a dwarf, but a boy," answered the Magician. "You have never seen a boy before. He is now small because he is young. With more years he will grow big and become as tall as Unc Nunkie."

"Oh. Is that magic?" the glass animal inquired.

"Yes; but it is Nature’s magic, which is more wonderful than any art known to man. For instance, my magic made you, and made you live; and it was a poor job because you are useless and a bother to me; but I can’t make you grow. You will always be the same size—and the same saucy, inconsiderate Glass Cat, with pink brains and a hard ruby heart."

"No one can regret more than I the fact that you made me," asserted the cat, crouching upon the floor and slowly swaying its spun-glass tail from side to side. "Your world is a very uninteresting place. I’ve wandered through your gardens and in the forest until I’m tired of it all, and when I come into the house the conversation of your fat wife and of yourself bores me dreadfully."

"That is because I gave you different brains from those we ourselves possess—and much too good for a cat," returned Dr. Pipt.

"Can’t you take ’em out, then, and replace ’em with pebbles, so that I won’t feel above my station in life?" asked the cat, pleadingly.

"Perhaps so. I’ll try it, after I’ve brought the Patchwork Girl to life," he said.

The cat walked up to the bench on which the Patchwork Girl reclined and looked at her attentively.

"Are you going to make that dreadful thing live?" she asked.

The Magician nodded.

"It is intended to be my wife’s servant maid," he said. "When she is alive she will do all our work and mind the house. But you are not to order her around, Bungle, as you do us. You must treat the Patchwork Girl respectfully."

"I won’t. I couldn’t respect such a bundle of scraps under any circumstances."

"If you don’t, there will be more scraps than you will like," cried Margolotte, angrily.

"Why didn’t you make her pretty to look at?" asked the cat. "You made me pretty—very pretty, indeed—and I love to watch my pink brains roll around when they’re working, and to see my precious red heart beat." She went to a long mirror, as she said this, and stood before it, looking at herself with an air of much pride. "But that poor patched thing will hate herself, when she’s once alive," continued the cat. "If I were you I’d use her for a mop, and make another servant that is prettier."

"You have a perverted taste," snapped Margolotte, much annoyed at this frank criticism. "I think the Patchwork Girl is beautiful, considering what she’s made of. Even the rainbow hasn’t as many colors, and you must admit that the rainbow is a pretty thing."

The Glass Cat yawned and stretched herself upon the floor.

"Have your own way," she said. "I’m sorry for the Patchwork Girl, that’s all."

glass-cat

As you can see, the prose is not magical, but, if you have the right frame of mind, and can imagine Oz, and things like glass cats, phonographs, saw horses and patchwork dolls coming to life with a magic powder, then you might be a Oz person.   It helps to be a kid, or childlike, or maybe stoned, to get into the spirit.  I think the 1939 film did it best, whereas other films never quite caught the magic.  I gave you this average sample from an Oz book to show you how it compares to the new stories.

Tad Williams reimagines Oz as a computer simulation where he must solve a murder.  Many of the writers in Oz Reimagined try to come up with a rational reason for Oz, and in this story Orlando Gardiner, System Ranger, is debugging the kansas simworld.  Something must be terrible wrong with the simulation if a murder happens.   Here is Williams’ introduction to the Glass Cat.

But that still didn’t answer the main question: If everything was good in Kansas, why had he been summoned?

Whatever the reason, someone seemed to be waiting for him. She would have sparkled if the sun had been on her, but since the Glass Cat was sitting in the shade grooming, Orlando didn’t see her until he was almost on top of her. She looked up at Orlando but didn’t stop until she had finished licking her glass paw and smoothing down the fur on her glass face. The Glass Cat might be a sim of a cat— and a see-through cat at that— but she was every inch a feline. The only things that kept her from looking like a cheap glass paperweight were her beautiful ruby heart, her emerald eyes, and the pink, pearl-like spheres that were her brains (and also her own favorite attribute).

“I expected you to show up,” said the Glass Cat. “But not this quickly.”

“I was in the area.” Which was both true and nonsensical, since there really was no distance for Orlando to travel. He existed only as information on the massive network and could visit any world he wanted whenever he chose. But as far as the Glass Cat and the others were concerned, there was only one world— this one. The sims didn’t even realize they were no longer connected to the Oz part of the simulation, although they remembered it as if they were. “I hear there’s a problem,” he said. “Do you know what it is?”

She rose, swirling her tail in the air as gracefully as if it had not been solid glass, and sauntered off the path, heading down toward the stream. “Am I supposed to follow you?” he asked.

She tossed him an emerald glance of reproach. “You’re so very clever, man from Oz. What do you think?”

Following a snippy, transparent cat, he thought: Just another day in my new and unfailingly weird life. Orlando’s body had died from a wasting disease as he and others had struggled against the Grail Brotherhood, the network’s creators, a cartel of rich monsters and other greedy bastards all looking for eternal life in worlds they made for themselves. But now they were all gone, and this was Orlando’s forever instead.

“I hope this is important, Cat,” he said as he followed her down the embankment, into the rustle of the birch trees. “I’ve got plenty of other things to do.” And he did. Major glitches had looped Dodge City— the simulated outlaws had been robbing the same simulated train for days— and the gravity had unexpectedly reverted to Earth-normal in one of the flying worlds, leaving bodies all over the ground. He planned to fob at least one of the problems off on Kunohara, who, like most scientists, loved fiddling with that sort of programming problem.

“There,” the Cat said, stopping so suddenly he nearly tripped over her. “What do you think of that?”

This isn’t the same Oz as Baum’s, but it has the same spirit, just modernized.  Most of the stories are like this, all quite inventive.  Another story, “The Veiled Shanghai” by Ken Liu sets Oz inside of 1919 Shanghai like the dual cities in The City & The City, the Hugo winning novel by China Miéville.  Jeffrey Ford has an old Dorothy returning to Oz in “A Meeting in Oz” that has a rather chilling reimagined meaning to “There’s no place like home.”

snow-white-red-blood

Like I keep asking, why do we keep going back to Oz?  But why do we keep going back and retelling classic Grimm tales?  Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow have  six volumes of retold fairy tales for adults.  I think it’s more than writers just wanting to modernize old folk tales.  I think it’s a kind of cultural psychoanalysis with each writer taking their turn at bat being Joseph Campbell.  Maybe they are like me, feeling they were bamboozled as kids by stories that were so much more exciting than reality.  Maybe it’s fun to dress up old fairytales in modern language.  Maybe it’s just more fan fiction.

Reading these fairy tales for adults, I wonder if they are either deprogramming tools, or remembering reprogramming tools, because we want to forget magic, or we want to return to believing in magic.  Writing stories for adults that retell children stories is a weird business.  They either try to make us think like kids again, or they make us think like kids again, but with brutal winks and nudges.

JWH – 6/11/13

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