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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Challenges: Rory Gilmore Reading List, 50 Books A Year (no. 39)

This is the first time I read the classic tale of Dorothy, the heartless Tinman, the brainless Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion in its original form, which to my surprise was both similar to, and different from, the various versions I’ve been exposed.

The first time I became acquainted with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was with the Hollywood silver screen, Technicolor masterpiece starring Judy Garland. The land of Oz with its almost edible ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ look, its cute little munchkins and scary winged monkeys was a wonder to behold. The thing that struck me (and is a famous focal point of the film) was the transition from the grey, monotonous Kansas scenes to the amazing, colour-drenched ones of Oz. It truly was a feast for childish eyes, and now I’ve finally got round to reading the original I can appreciate the way producers back then actually interpreted this from the text itself. The first chapter opens up on what can only be described as a desolate landscape. Kansas is a land where things are dead – it is no place for a child to grow up. It is a country for old people, sucked dry of colour and emotion:

“The sun had baked the land into a grey mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green… Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint, and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and grey as everything else.”

In Dorothy’s eyes even Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are the dullest people you could ever meet, changed by their environment:

“The sun and wind had changed her [Aunt Em:] too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober grey; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were grey also… Uncle Henry never laughed… he was grey also, from his long beard to his rough boots.”

Like all successful children’s stories, this one features an orphan. A child who yearns for home, who is lucky enough (or maybe not) to find someone from her extended family to take her in, but somehow can never be given enough love or attention simply because of her orphan status. One can never take the place of a mother and father. Baum does not say as much, but this is the primary goal of the book; to hammer home the moral to all little ‘wannabe runaways’ that no matter how bad things get, there really is ‘no place like home’.

Other motifs crop up symbolised by the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion. These strangers that Dorothy meets along the way all reflect parts of her that are needed to complete the impossible journey ahead. To protect herself, she must use her head. To make good friends, she must use her heart. To face her dangers, she must summon up courage. And of course, she cannot do these things by herself, so she needs companions, teaching her the important lesson to ask for help when needed.

The yellow brick road (symbolic of the colour of caution) leads her to various tasks that she must complete in order to proceed homebound. The structure of the lost continent she finds herself in is represented by Baum as a compass, with Dorothy visiting each point (in one way or another) which can be translated as psychological visitations to different parts of her personality. She is tested and tested again, until finally Dorothy comes to the golden realisation that the power to return home lay within her all along.

There are parts of this story that came as a surprise, for instance, the ‘fighting trees’ reminded me of the ‘whomping willow’ in Harry Potter, and the Quadlings and the China country were all new, and there were ‘silver shoes’ instead of the famous ‘ruby slippers’. But apart from that I enjoyed the story, and was happy to read something that wasn’t too hard on the brain. But my thoughts remain that this is a book best read during childhood. The reminders and repetition of the different aspects of the ‘quest’ through Oz did frustrate me at times, but is necessary for a younger audience with a shorter attention span. Overall I think it’s excellent for reading with children and retains great potential for conversation with little ones about what is happening in the story.

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