L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite stories. I saw the movie starring Judy Garland long before I read the book. But in adulthood, I reread the story every year. This simple tale about power, longing, hope and courage rates right up there with the New Testament, Homer's Odyssey and other great works of literature that sustain me.
Rebecca Loncraine's new biography of L. Frank Baum, The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, (Gotham, 2009) appealed because I know so little about the genius who wrote the story. A review in the New York Times book review caught my eye; soon enough, the book was mine.
Loncraine is Welsh, with a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford. At first, that put me off. What can she know of this quintessentially American storyteller. I struggled through the first chapter or so, feeling the work was over-written. But soon enough the work's exacting attention to detail gripped me. Mysterious disappearances of aroenauts over Lake Michigan in their balloons resonate; so do troubled times spent in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and worries about weather; the what of spiritualists trying to communicate with the dead. Each nook and cranny of Baum's life and experience is brought to life. Those who know the story of Oz well can find the source of much loved images in the ordinary data of experience.
This is a wonderful book for those interested in Oz's creator and the formative influences making possible this lovely tale. There is a decent bibliography at the book's ending for those who want to know more. For my part, I learned about an author whose works I did not know, Andrew Lang. I've just spent a delightful half an hour or so reading about Lang in various bibliographic databases, and have ordered an annotated bibliography of his works. Lang popularized fairy tales in the United States a century ago. We need the nourishing power of those stories in our time as well. I am looking forward to reading The Blue Fairy Book, which I also ordered today.
Dorothy's trip to Oz took the form of a book in 1900. But it has become so much more than a book. "We're not in Kansas anymore," were lines she first uttered; we say them know when we find ourselves suddenly stretched to see things anew.
I am entranced by Loncraine's book, and looking forward to another reading of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There is magic there, nourishing magic for thirst souls.