Erin Reads: The Surprisingly Modern Gender Politics of Oz

Gotta finish this Baum reread, because it’s Yuletide season and I may need the canon refreshment for my assignment and/or treats.

The Tin Woodman of Oz — book 12 — is a nice low-key novel, heavy on the backstory. Useful plot hook: another random Oz civilian, this time a Winkie boy named Woot, wanders to the Tin Woodman’s castle, where Nick Chopper and the Scarecrow treat him to food and backstory. When Woot hears that Nick used to be engaged to a fellow Munchkin before he was rebuilt without a heart, he declares that it’s Nick’s duty to fulfill his promise and marry the woman (thus making her Empress of the Winkies), even if he doesn’t love her.

Bonus: from his self-description, the Tin Woodman is what in modern terms we would call canon aromantic:

“She said she still loved me, but I found that I no longer loved her. My tin body contained no heart, and without a heart no one can love. […] [T]he Wizard’s stock of hearts was low, and he gave me a Kind Heart instead of a Loving Heart, so that I could not love Nimmie Amee any more than I did when I was heartless.”

The quest is front-loaded with boys…which is thoroughly plot-relevant, because a girl in the party would have stopped them and said “why are you assuming this woman is still pining after you? She hasn’t even seen you for decades. She’s probably moved on.”


Plenty of little continuity drops. Woot used to live near Oogaboo. The Scarecrow has learned poetry at the Woggle-Bug’s college. Woot gets lost and falls into a cavern full of dragons, which are clearly the same underground dragons we saw in book 4.

And there’s the castle of the Yoop, from book 7! In a mirror/foreshadowing of the characters’ main bad assumption, they assume that since the Yoop is locked up, his castle will be empty. Turned out that was only Mr. Yoop — the home is still occupied by Mrs. Yoop. And she’s hella powerful. Like “casually mentions she has Polychrome in a birdcage in her room” powerful.

Poly’s temporarily a canary, but she still has magic powers, she just has to do things like pick up a twig and wave it around in her beak.

She turns Nick into an owl. But he’s still made of tin! And the Scarecrow gets to be a little bear, stuffed with straw. It’s hilarious. (Woot: a green monkey.)

So much meditation on identity, and transformation, and what qualities make you yourself! Since Nick got all his original body parts replaced one at a time, is he really still the same person? If he keeps his memories and personality but happens to be shaped like an owl, does that make him unsuitable for marriage? How about if he’s shaped like a man, but only a few inches tall? The others get drawn into the theme with their unwilling transformations, and there’s a related sequence where the Scarecrow has to give up his stuffing, so Poly carries him in the form of a bundle of clothes for a while.

…also, a one-off scene with a guy named Tommy Quick-Step, who, after an unfortunate wish, has a really long torso and 20 legs. Insert your own human-centipede jokes here.


Our heroes continue walking/flying toward Winkie Country, but now they make a deliberate detour to Jinjur’s house. I love that she and the Scarecrow are buddies now.

Luckily, Ozma and Dorothy have been spying on the party via Magic Picture this whole time, so they rendezvous at Jinjur’s place to reverse the transformations and say hi. (Along with Toto. Still comfortably using human language, though it’s mostly to say things like “Leave me out of your magic, please!”)

Ozma appears “about 14 or 15,” and Dorothy “much younger.” (But only half a head shorter?) This is the book where Baum really doubles down on the “nobody ever ages, really, there are babies in this country who have been babies for thousands of years” version of continuity.

Sure enough, Dorothy: “Do you s’pose Nimmie Amee still loves you, after all these years?” Nick is totally convinced. Ozma says that, well, it can’t hurt to go visit her and ask.

Anyway, it turns out Nimmie Amee got a new boyfriend (a soldier, unsubtly named Captain Fyter) not long after Nick broke up with her. The witch tried the same limb-lopping-off trick, and Fyter did the same incremental replacement with tin prosthetics, aaaaaaaand that was what convinced Nimmie Amee to accept a marriage proposal. She has a thing for tin!

But Fyter conveniently got rusted in a rainstorm, so after Nick oils him and hears his backstory, they try to figure out which of them has a better claim to their one-time fiancée.

Woot: “If she’s into tin, you’re basically interchangeable.”
Scarecrow: “Why don’t you draw lots for her?”
Polychrome, currently the only girl in the party, eyerolling so hard you can probably see it from space: “No, you idiots, it’s up to her who she marries.”

Seriously, the gender politics of the whole thing feels way ahead of its time.


Massive body horror alert:

In trying to track Nimmie Amee down, the party goes to the tinsmith who made Nick’s and Fyter’s tin bodies…and find out that he still has their leftover meat parts. Still alive. Most of them in a barrel. Nick finds his own old severed head in a cupboard, and they have the most bizarre conversation.

On top of this, it turns out the tinsmith patched together a bunch of those parts to make a whole new Frankenstinian person. All the “what makes you yourself, anyway?” thematic questions are getting slammed, and hard.

The tin men finally find their old sweetheart living in the mountains. They still expect her to be actively crying over her lost love.

Nope. She’s married. The body-horror-chimera guy has been her husband for, like, decades now. And she’s not interested in either of the tin guys,

Good going, girl.

On the way home they stop in the Emerald City, and the tin men ask, kinda pathetically, what they should do about all this? Ozma sets them straight with an incredibly patient “look, your ex is happy, and it’s really none of your business.”

Fyter gets hired as a soldier by Ozma, while Nick and the Scarecrow return home, to get back to bro’ing it up for the next few decades. And the Tin Woodman soothes his ego with the idea that, eh, the Winkies probably didn’t want an empress anyway.

3 thoughts on “Erin Reads: The Surprisingly Modern Gender Politics of Oz

  1. I remember a similar question in relation to ships: If an old wooden warship is replaced, piece by piece, until none of the original is there, is it still the same ship? That seems to have happened to Star Trek’s original USS Enterprise in the first movie, and to both tin men, too. My conclusion is that the head in the cupboard is the real Nick, and the Tin Man someone else, entirely.

    As for Ozma’s age compared to Dorothy, I suppose that after a century or so, a few years don’t make much difference.

    Even as a kid, I was really bothered by the concept of a bunch of newborn babies, never aging.

    • For the ships, I would say that yeah, they’re the same. It takes something like nine years for all the cells in a human body to be replaced, too. There’s a continuity of memory and identity that counts.

      In this case, things get weird because you can still reassemble the old parts into a functioning body. But it turns out that our current Tin Woodman has all the memories of being the human Nick Chopper, while the head…seems to just identify as a head, with a vague sense that “Nick Chopper is a name I used to be called.” It doesn’t miss having a life, and seems content contemplating the wood grain on the inside of its cupboard door.

      The whole thing is just super disturbing.

      I’m more puzzled by Dorothy’s size than anything age-related. And yeah, the aging mechanic is just begging to be handwaved.

      • A lot of what happens in Oz can be super disturbing, if you stop to think about it!

        I read a Mark Twain story where dead people went to Heaven, and there could pick what age they wanted to be–invariably old people would choose to be young, then after a time would get bored with that and go back to their original age. I like the idea of something like that in Oz: Let babies grow up, and when they get older decide for themselves what age they want to stop at.

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