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Erin Reads: Shoehorned in Oz, and Continuity in Oz August 26, 2016

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches.
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Rinkitink in Oz…sure is a book.

This is Baum at peak “desperately trying to be allowed to write non-Oz things.” First chapter opens with “look, ravenous fandom, you’ve seen a map of Oz, right? Okay, zoom out until you’ve got a view of the surrounding countries. See these islands? We’re going there now. Still totally an Oz book, so stay with me! And bring your money.”

The eponymous Rinkitink shows up to visit the island nation of Pingaree just in time for it to be invaded by the evil nation next door. The evil islanders kidnap all the locals except Prince Inga, who goes to the rescue, along with Rinkitink and a talking goat.

Things only start to get Ozzy toward the very end, when the evil king and queen try to get Inga off their backs by passing his captive parents on to the Nome Kingdom. And then Dorothy sees the whole thing in the Magic Picture, and deus-ex-machinas a rescue with the help of the Wizard and a basket of eggs.

Wikipedia says Baum wrote most of the story in 1905, before Oz book 3 was published, and you can tell there wasn’t a lot of revising. The writing doesn’t have the wit and charm that was so good in books 7 and 8. The fantasy countries have the same blandness that dragged down book 9. At this point in the timeline the Nome Kingdom is ruled by Kaliko, but this book was originally written with Ruggedo — and it’s painfully obvious. I bet Baum didn’t change anything beyond find-and-replacing the names.

There isn’t a single girl in the party, which is grating. And this is the book with the wince-worthy scene about a transformed human being turned back in stages, with one of those stages being a Tottenhot (last seen in book 7).

Entirely skippable.

***

On to Book 11, Lost Princess of Oz, and FINALLY, Baum has accepted his lot in life and gotten into a groove. It’s familiar Oz characters with an Oz-centric conflict that we’re guaranteed to care about from the first sentence — Ozma is missing.

Dorothy is the one who confirms Ozma isn’t just sleeping in. You see, she’s the only one who’s always allowed into Ozma’s chambers, no matter how early, or late, the hour. Draw your own conclusions.

The kidnapper has also managed to disappear all the MacGuffins that would have made the rescue too easy. The Magic Picture is gone. When the Wizard takes a speedy Sawhorse-back ride all the way to Glinda’s castle, he learns that the Magic Book is gone — and so are all her spellcasting ingredients and equipment — and, when he gets back, so is his.

Awkwardly, the Magic Belt is still here…but somehow Dorothy has forgotten how to use it. It’ll protect her while she’s wearing it, and that’s all. I wish Baum had at least tried to shoehorn in an excuse. (Maybe it’s been so many years that Dorothy’s forgotten? Maybe its automatic spell-understanding power has run down, like Tik-Tok when he can only speak nonsense because his thoughts have run down?)

There’s a bunch of lovely setting description — of Ozma’s rooms, of Glinda’s magic book, of other scenery. Reminiscent of the time in book 6 when Baum slowed down to give us a bunch of national statistics about Oz: we’ve been here before, but this time he’s thinking about it.

***

The B-plot involves an isolated mesa-top community in the Winkie Country, where Cayke the cook’s magic diamond-studded dishpan is gone too. She and the Frogman, local respected oracle and literal giant frog, set out to find it.

In general, this is painfully less interesting. Although the way average Ozites react to them is pretty funny:

“Tell me, my good man, have you seen a diamond-studded gold dishpan?”

“No, nor have I seen a copper-plated lobster.”

And here’s what happens when they stumble into the country of the teddy bears (yeah, it’s a thing), get arrested for trespassing, and are brought before the king for sentencing:

“I condemn you to death merely as a matter of form. It sounds quite terrible, and in ten years we shall have forgotten all about it.”

So, a few good snappy lines. Too few. Even now that Baum is writing a fresh new plot instead of harvesting earlier manuscripts, he’s slid pretty far from the high point of cleverness we got in books 7 and 8.

***

The familiar characters, meanwhile, set off for a manual, boots-on-the-ground search. They split up into four parties to search the four Oz countries; Dorothy’s party is the one we follow.

It is, unfortunately, much too big. In spite of the excellent plot-based excuse to split people up, we end up with Dorothy, Betsy, Trot, Button-Bright, the Wizard, Scraps, the Woozy, the Cowardly Lion, Hank the mule, the Sawhorse, and Toto. That’s 11 characters! We’re doubling up on roles, and there aren’t nearly enough good lines to go around.

The distinctions between the American girls have pretty much collapsed. Trot and Betsy never get anything useful or plot-relevant to do that separates them from Dorothy, and their lines are all interchangeable.

Button-Bright isn’t much better in the beginning. At least his propensity for getting lost becomes a plot point. (Dorothy scolds him for wandering off when they’re on an important mission! She’s come so far.)

The Wizard seems to feel pretty useless without his magic, though he does get a few good tool-using moments, recalling his resourcefulness throughout book 4. Would’ve been nice if this was a more explicit character arc — from “uh-oh, what do I do without supernatural powers?” to “wait, I’m a clever and resourceful guy, I just have to get my groove back.” I mean, this is the man who once took over the country with nothing but bluff, stage magic, and elbow grease.

Scraps is great. As sharply-characterized as ever. Gets to demonstrate that she’s just as good at coming up with clever plans as the Scarecrow, though she’s more mischievous about rolling them out. When the party gets stymied by an illusion, she’s the one who susses it out — a nice payoff for the time she learned how to deal with illusions in book 7.

The Woozy, Sawhorse, and Hank are, eerily, not much better differentiated than the girls. The Lion isn’t much better, though his characteristic cowardice still pops up. Should’ve only brought one of these, maybe two.

There’s a whole chapter when the beasts are discussing what physical features are best, and of course they all have wildly different bodies and capabilities…but each one has exactly the same level of pride in his own appearance, and expresses it in the same way as the next one. There’s no individual personality coming through.

Toto manages to stand out, partly because of his relationship with Dorothy, partly because he has a mini-arc about “losing his growl.” (You’d think this would be a great opportunity for the Woozy to be sympathetic….)

Apparently Toto has gotten more comfortable talking since his last appearance. He’s having whole conversations now, and wasn’t communicating nonverbally even before the growl-loss. I guess it’s nice that he’s already chatty, instead of being forced by circumstances to do something he isn’t comfortable with…but this feels like another missed opportunity for a character arc.

***

The most substantial character arc in the book is actually from the other party.

At first the Frogman is hugely-respected in his little corner of Oz, assumed to be wise and thoughtful because he’s so unique, and he goes along with this because he likes the attention. He joins Cayke on her quest because he expects to find new people to fawn on him. The indifference of the average Winkie is pretty jarring.

Then they wander past the Truth Pond — last seen in book 5 — and the Frogman goes for a splash, only to discover that, whoops, now he can’t lie. Maybe not even to himself. He comes clean with Cayke about not being as smart or venerable as he put on…and ends up doing some genuinely heroic things, putting himself in danger to help others, now that he can’t just coast along on bluff-based admiration.

***

“Search for Ozma” stumbles into being “search for a magician evil and powerful enough to have stolen Ozma,” and the parties converge when they both start aiming for Ugu the Shoemaker. Your standard megalomaniac sorcerer.

Turns out Cayke’s magic dishpan has teleporting powers, because why not. Ugu stole that first, used it to zap himself into Glinda’s and Ozma’s homes to steal their stuff, and then — when Ozma caught him in the act — had to hastily kidnap her as an afterthought.

One of the souvenirs from the teddy-bear country is a new MacGuffin: a tiny wind-up bear that can give true answers to any question. Not always specific-enough answers, unfortunately. They ask for Ozma’s location, it points them to a hole in the ground not far from Ugu’s castle, but all they see when they get there is Button-Bright.

And apparently none of them know how to play Twenty Questions. Or remember a whole lot of their own continuity, because we get lines of speculation like this:

“Perhaps Button-Bright is Ozma.” / “And perhaps he isn’t! Ozma is a girl, and Button-Bright is a boy.”

Yeah, and the last time Ozma was kidnapped, the villain’s whole plot was to hide her by transfiguring her into a boy, so your point is…?

Button-Bright also scornfully insists, “Nothing ever enchants ME.” Kid, on your first adventure you got turned into a fox-person. Dorothy was there!

You would think, considering that three separate characters in this party were on the expedition to Ev, one of them would remember where the missing Tin Woodman was eventually found, and start turning down Button-Bright’s pockets.

(Once the Wizard finally thinks to ask narrowing-down questions, our heroes find Ozma pretty quickly. They recover all the magical tools and ingredients. They even finally track down Cayke’s dishpan, and send her home happy.)

***

But listen, all Plot-Enforced Stupidity aside, I love the way this book ends, and here’s why:

How do they defeat Ugu? This terrifyingly strong evil wizard? The villain who managed to imprison Princess Ozma, de-power Glinda the Good, and generally get the best of all good magic-users in Oz?

Dorothy beats him in a magical showdown.

She’s been secretly practicing with the Magic Belt. (“I transformed the Sawhorse into a potato masher and back again, and the Cowardly Lion into a pussycat and back again.”) Now she breaks it out and gets her magical-girl on, complete with an “I’ll punish you” speech. Saves the rest of the crew from Ugu’s traps, and, with transfiguration power that rivals the Nome King’s, turns Ugu himself into a dove. I would make a “he got better” joke here, but…he does not. The very last denouement scene is dove!Ugu asking Dorothy for her forgiveness.

Dorothy Gale has gone from “sweet, simple Kansas child, who was a meek and tearful prisoner for the Wicked Witch of the West” to “most formidable magic-user in all Oz.”

And boy, she will wallop you if you mess with her girlfriend.

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Comments»

1. Nathan - September 2, 2016

I’ve seen it proposed that the Magic Belt was drained of much of its power after being used so frequently in the first six books, and had to be recharged. That still doesn’t really explain why Dorothy can no longer do what she easily could in “Ozma,” though.


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