First of all, allow me to clear away some distractions. The movie, for one thing. I never read this book as a kid, but I’ve seen the movie a time or two. The movie is better. I don’t think the filmmakers were concerned about redefining the fairy tale for modern audiences the way Baum was. But more importantly, they took an episodic story and gave it much greater unity, which brought with it a satisfying narrative arc. I was disappointed with the Wicked Witch episode in the book, but only because it was just another peak in the overall cardiogram of the narrative.
I also found Baum’s intent, which he spells out in the Introduction, quite puzzling. He seems to feel about classic fairy tales much the way Dr. Wertham felt about comic books: that they were much too violent for children. Yet at least they were up front about it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is chock full of violence and horror. The fates of the Scarecrow (before Dorothy saves him) and the Tin Woodman (before she meets him) are terrifying. Does it really matter that they are treated so matter-of-factly? I’m not sure, but that may make it worse.
And then I had to go and read the Afterword in my edition, by a man named Peter Glassman. Among the book’s many virtues, Glassman writes, is that the “capitalist ideal of the free market is in evidence when the Wizard tells Dorothy, ‘You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return.'” Of course, I had already noted the quid pro quo nature of Oz, but seeing it presented as a virtue was too much. I happen to believe that “capitalist ideal” is an oxymoron. It’s the capitalist ideal that has Dorothy starting the book on a farm in Kansas where everything, even the grass — even her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry — is gray. It’s a place where only a child can find a reason to laugh.
The truth is, I liked the book. I didn’t love it, though. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it ain’t. I especially enjoyed the characters of Dorothy’s companions: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who each want something they think they lack, but who, of course, already possess it. The way Baum dovetails this with the Wizard and his “gifts” is simply brilliant (and it’s far superior to what we find in the film).
On the other hand, while the interchangeability of their various adventures might be good for very young readers (since it doesn’t require of them much in the way of memory or reasoning), it isn’t so good for adults. I can appreciate Baum’s desire to avoid the overt moralizing of classic fairy tales, but it’s as if, when he made that decision, he threw out unity along with it, thinking, perhaps, that structure itself is inherently moralistic. It would explain why Dorothy’s quest to the Emerald City doesn’t in fact conclude in the Emerald City. This kind of book doesn’t conclude, it ends. And where and when it ends is but a matter of authorial whim.
Oz is a fast read, but not a particularly light one. Part of this is that Baum’s style isn’t as airy as he might have wished it to be. His grim description of Kansas sets a tone even the wonders of Oz can’t entirely lift. Fortunately, that has its compensations. Regardless of Baum’s intent, it’s the book’s darkness that makes it compelling. This book naturally shows up on lists of fantasy books, but does it also show up on lists of dark fantasy? It should. Loneliness, abandonment, dismemberment, slavery, deception — it’s a cornucopia of the horrible. In the movie, the Wizard is known as the “Great and Powerful”; in the book, he is the “Great and Terrible.” It’s a distinction that applies to the stories, as well.