Review: The Real Wizard of Oz

The Real Wizard of Oz
Rebecca Loncraine
Gotham Books
$28.00, hardcover, 352 pages

Almost everyone in the United States knows the story of the Wizard of Oz. Whether you’re familiar with it from TV reruns of the 1939 MGM classic or from reading the books, chances are you’re well acquainted with Dorothy and her quest to follow the Yellow Brick Road.

What you may not know is that like Dorothy, her creator, L. Frank Baum, experienced a tornado when he was young. Or that Baum’s interest in spiritualism informed his creation of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

In his Oz books, Baum clearly followed the old adage: write what you know. He may not have physically been to Oz and walked through the Emerald City, but he used everything from his life to inform his creations. Rebecca Loncraine takes a detailed look at Baum’s life and its ties to his fiction in The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum.

She begins eight years before Baum’s birth with a glimpse at the growing fad for mediums who could contact the dead and the effects of a diphtheria epidemic on Baum’s family. Her attention to detail is great, and a reader comes away from the early parts of the biography with a full understanding of growing up in the latter half of the 19th century. At times, the level of detail can frustrate a reader, who wants to get to the good stuff, when Baum comes into his own and begins writing.

Patience is a virtue as each chapter detailing Baum’s young life sets the stage for the next chapter. His family newspaper, created when he was a child, holds the seeds of his later fiction. As does his interest in theater. In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage. His close ties with her family would lead him to follow his brother-in-law to Dakota Territory where he experienced droughts and conditions similar to those Dorothy Gale would face before her fateful tornado ride. He also wrote about reports of Sitting Bull’s ghost dancers in his Aberdeen Saturday pioneer, a newspaper he acquired in 1889.

Baum began working on The Wizard of Oz in 1898. He drew on his memories of Civil War amputees, his fear of scarecrows, the Chicago World’s Fair and a powerful imagination to create his world. His niece, Dorothy Gage, was born one month after Baum started writing. She would die five months later.

Once The Wizard of Oz is published, Loncraine’s book picks up momentum. Oz becomes an incredible success, allowing Baum to write other fairy tales and to further explore Oz. He creates a stage musical of the book, which dazzled audiences with its use of electric light and stage trickery.

Financially successful, Baum continues the Oz series, using the books to create a world that should be, rather than the world rapidly growing in the 20th century. Uncle Henry and Auntie Em face bankruptcy in an Oz sequel so Dorothy arranges for them live in a utopian Oz.

Loncraine follows Baum through the wild success of Oz and his alter ego pseudonyms, his financial highs and lows, all the while emphasizing Baum’s love of children and childhood and his dedication to imagination. The book continues past his death in 1918 to Maud’s attendance at the 1939 MGM premiere.

The Real Wizard of Oz isn’t just a biography of L. Frank Baum, but a biography of Oz. The two are intertwined, perhaps just as Baum would have it be.

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