Only two Oz books left in the reread. I’m dragging it out with some of Baum’s other works.
…so I had this mostly geared up last Monday, and then, uh, some stuff happened that took precedence. And there will be more election-handling signal-boosting posts to come. But for now, let’s take a trip back to the beginning of the 20th century…in the fun children’s-fantasy way, not the way the Republican Party wants to take the country for real.
Dot and Tot in Merryland
From general osmosis I thought Dot and Tot were magical children, but no, Dot is a normal American kid! In contrast to Dorothy’s poverty, Dot (full name Evangeline Josephine Freeland) is the daughter of a banker. Grew up with servants, they own multiple residences, her mom does a health-improving tour of Europe without any detriment to her finances. Tot is the gardener’s boy, a little younger, reminiscent (preminiscent?) of Button-Bright’s first appearance.
Looks like this is the first book Baum published after Oz became a runaway hit? He’s not very creative with names yet, is he. Dorothy and Toto; Dot and Tot.
The kids are in a boat that comes loose, and drift through a cave and into the valleys of Merryland. There’s a clown valley, a candy valley…the Queen is a doll, and lives in the Valley of the Dolls. Kitty valley, toy-animal valley, and eerie Valley of Lost Things.
It’s…remarkably boring. The valleys are themed based on Stuff Kids Like, which feels like pandering without a whole lot of thought put into it — and it falls flat, because “I like watching clowns” doesn’t necessarily mean “I like reading about fictional characters observing that they like watching clowns.”
We only get tiny blips of conflict, like when Tot eats a Candy Man’s thumb. (Dorothy notices the missing thumb in Road to Oz. Continuity!)
I do like the running gag of never getting an answer about the Queen’s name until the very end.
So I’m listening to a charmingly bland passage about the valley of the candy people, when OH SNAP suddenly I can tell you why this book hasn’t stood the test of time.
A man made of marshmallows abruptly throws out this gem:
“One of our greatest troubles is that we cannot depend upon our colored servants, who are chocolate. Chocolates can seldom be depended on, you know.”
Aaaand not long afterward: chocolate “serving maids, with complexions so dark brown in color that Dot was almost afraid of them.” WOW.
The illustrations, too — I looked it up on Gutenberg — aren’t shy about things like golliwog dolls. (The cooks are black dolls and the chambermaids are china dolls. Good lord.)
…It occurs to me that, since this is from 1901, the whole “comparing black people to chocolate” trope might actually have seemed like a clever innovation at the time? But whoo boy has that not aged well.
(Things that don’t age well even though they weren’t a problem to start with: the valley of cats features liberal description of “pussies.”)
Verdict: Technically better-crafted than Mo, not as good as the Trot books, maybe on a par with the worse Oz books…but holy cow, that overt racism. Skippable.
Zixi of Ix (or, The Magic Cloak)
This one was originally written as a serial for a magazine (and it shows). The plot flips between Ix and Noland, both countries whose royalty also showed up at Ozma’s party.
King Bud and his sister Princess Fluff sounded older at the party, but here the country of Noland seems almost unmagical, and they start off as normal kids. The king dies; some obscure statute says the 47th person to come in the capitol city’s gate the next morning is the new king; and, whoops, it’s the recently-orphaned Bud.
(Real names: Margaret and two-years-younger Timothy. Baum sure does love writing kids with weird nicknames.)
Meanwhile, the faeries have made a magic cloak because they were bored, and gave it to Fluff. It grants wishes, and she cheerfully lends it out to people indiscriminately, so accidental havoc-wreaking wishes ensue. Things like “I wish I could fly” or “I wish I was ten feet tall.”
The palace has lightning rods! Modern!
Shameless references to children getting whipped. Un-modern.
The sentence-by-sentence writing in this one is really solid. Good scene-setting. Good dry wit. When the councilors are initially debating what to base their decisions on:
“This book of laws was written years ago and was meant to be used when the king was absent or ill or asleep.”
And this is from when Bud first takes office:
“Just now it is your duty to hear the grievances of your people,” answered Tallydab gently.
“What’s the matter with ’em?” asked Bud crossly. “Why don’t they keep out of trouble?”
“I do not know, your Majesty, but there are always disputes among the people.”
“But that isn’t the king’s fault, is it?” said Bud.
Enjoyable, thoughtful scenes about what it’s actually like for a kid to suddenly have absolute power. Like, there’s an unusually subtle mix of “from the mouths of babes” and “you just got conned, because you have no idea how to do this.”
We’re almost halfway through the book (chapter 10 of 23) when we actually pay a visit to Ix, which appears to be another mostly-mundane country, except that Queen Zixi is a witch of 683 years old who still looks 16. (The rest of the populace ages normally. Reference to old men whose grandfathers remembered how Zixi was just as pretty when they were kids.)
“…for newsmongers, as everyone knows, were ever unable to stick to facts since the world began.”
Sudden body horror, yikes. “To mortal eyes Zixi was charming and attractive, yet her reflection in a mirror showed to her an ugly old hag, bald of head, wrinkled, with toothless gums and withered, sunken cheeks.”
And that’s why Zixi vows to steal Fluff’s cloak.
Geez, from her presentation at Ozma’s party (…and, let’s face it, her name alone), I was expecting her to be generally Ozma-esque, much the way Betsy is Trot-esque. Not so!
Her first scheme is downright Pratchettian:
Then Zixi had printed on green paper a lot of handbills which read as follows:
“MISS TRUST, a pupil of the celebrated Professor Hatrack of
Hooktown-on-the-Creek, is now located at Woodbine Villa (North Gateway of
Nole) and is prepared to teach the young ladies of this city the
Arts of Witchcraft according to the most modern and approved methods. Terms
moderate. References required.”
Even more so when she says “all right kids, come in tomorrow wearing your best cloaks!” — and Fluff’s immediate response is to think “huh, that sounds really suspiciously specific.”
I’m really sad that Ixi only keeps this up for like a chapter before deciding “screw it, I’m just gonna declare war on Noland.”
“Yet I can never resist admiring a fine soldier, whether he fights for or against me. For instance, just look at that handsome officer riding beside Queen Zixi—her chief general, I think. Isn’t he sweet? He looks just like an apple, he is so round and wears such a tight-fitting jacket. Can’t you pick him for me, friend Tellydeb?”
(That’s from Tollydob, one of the councilors. I could ship it.)
The war is also won by Nol pretty fast. You can tell Baum is constantly working in a mindset of “better wrap things up, the next chapter might be my last — oh, it won’t? — okay, better make up a whole new conflict, and fast.” Like a TV writer, only more so.
Zixi finally gets ahold of the cloak by getting herself hired as a maid, making an imitation cloak, and swapping it for Fluff’s in a game of Duck Season/Wabbit Season. So technically it’s not stolen, and the magic works.
Although she still screws up her wish. Sigh.
By the way, this book is blissfully racism-free, but it does give us this bit of unnecessary meanness:
“Why do you sob?” questioned the queen.
“Because I want to be a man,” replied the child, trying to stifle her sobs.
“Why do you want to be a man?” asked Zixi curiously.
“Because I’m a little girl,” was the reply.
This made Zixi angry. “You’re a little fool!” she exclaimed loudly.
I’m just going to pretend that was a trans girl wishing she was a cis man. Makes it all the better when, in a chapter or so, she’s decided to love and accept herself for who she is.
Two-thirds of the way through, Zixi wanders out of the narrative completely, and in bounce a civilization of rubber people living up in the mountains. Baum sure loves his bouncy people, huh?
They decide to take over Nol, and do a much better job of it than Ix did. Especially since the kids don’t have the real cloak to use in self-defense anymore. So they decide:
“Well, there’s no one else we can trust, so we may as well try Zixi.”
Seems like a fast turnaround for an Enemy Mine situation, but okay.
What finally ends the story is that the fairy queen Lulea comes to get her cloak back. She’s sick of it being used for silly things. Bud complains that it’s not fair: he didn’t get a wish, because he’s been holding off until he had a really good idea.
And Lulea lets him have one! So instead of being a clunky Aesop about not putting things off, it becomes a story about how taking your time and thinking about your decisions is valuable, and wise queenly types appreciate it.
“I wish,” announced Bud gravely, “that I shall become the best king that Noland has ever had!”
Epilogue says that it works! Plus, Fluff later marries the unnamed prince of an unspecified kingdom, and is also a good queen.
John Dough and the Cherub
This one’s all plot.
A Mysterious Arab(TM) named Ali Dubh has been hoarding the Water of Life for years now, the latest in a long line of hoarders, but since he’s being chased by people who want to steal it, he gives it to someone else to keep safe…and makes the mistake of choosing a French-American baker couple, who promptly accidentally use it to bring a five-foot-tall gingerbread man to life.
John Dough is another animated-artificial-humanoid in the vein of the Scarecrow or Jack Pumpkinhead, whose main goal in life is not to be destroyed (in his case, eaten). He starts off in the mundane US, but a Fourth-of-July firework takes him to the unsubtly-named Isle of Phreex, and from there he journeys through a series of weird islands trying to stay one step ahead of Ali Dubh.
For the record: while the whole “sinister Arab antagonist” thing is awfully sketchy, at least this time Baum doesn’t put in anything about how all Arabs are [insert stereotype here].
On Phreex, John meets Chick the Cherub, who immediately decides to be his best friend. Chick’s whole backstory is so trippy. Apparently “putting a baby in an incubator” is the 1910s equivalent of the 1960s “accidental dose of gamma radiation” — a plausible-sounding excuse for all kinds of bizarre physical traits. No parents! Incredibly intelligent! Needs a special exotic diet! (Conveniently, it excludes gingerbread, so John has no fear Chick will eat him.)
And this is fun: Chick is canon nonbinary. And/or intersex. It’s not clear how much Baum knew about either issue, but we do know is that the writing plays a strong game of pronoun-dodging, and when a pronoun is unavoidable Chick uses “it.”
Para Bruin the rubber bear is also from this story! (Baum’s thing for rubber strikes again.)
Is this the only Baumian book with a language barrier? John Dough is magically enabled to speak to anyone, but Para Bruin speaks one language, Chick and the other humans speak another, and the Mifkins speak a third.
Unexpectedly serious body horror when John’s fingers get eaten off.
The story wraps up in a typical Baumian way: John stumbles into a country (well, two countries; this is the book that Hiland and Loland are from) that needs a new ruler, and the people immediately decide he’s a great choice.
Apparently the publishers wanted Baum to firmly establish Chick as male or female by the end. He refused. The last few lines of the book:
“The Records of the Kingdom say very little of Chick’s later history, merely mentioning the fact that the King’s most valuable assistant was the Head Booleywag, who grew up to be the especial favorite of all the inhabitants of the island. But, curiously enough, the Records fail to state whether the Head Booleywag was a man or a woman.”