One thing you learn very quickly when you write fact-based fiction is that there will always be people in your audience who know as much about your topic as you do– and sometimes more! Such was the case when I showed up to Rainy Day Books in Kansas City and there was a woman in the audience who clearly knew the story of the Baum family inside and out. She asked the best questions and had startling insight into my book– even reading between the lines to discover a subtext that I thought I’d edited out of the story. Modest to a fault, Jane Albright almost left without introducing herself– but I was delighted to discover that the true Oz expert was the President of the International Wizard of Oz Club. I’m so happy to have her here to speak with me today.
How did you become President of the International Wizard of Oz Club?
Progressively! I joined the Club 48 years ago and went to my first convention before I was old enough to drive. I soon had a handful of Oz friends — who are still my friends — that I looked forward to seeing every year. This was all pre-internet, so we had to write actual stamped, letters and make “long distance” phone calls to talk. Once I was out of college and working, I was recruited for various tasks. Usually small stuff. It would be a convention report, a book review… A short story I wrote was published in our annual fiction collection. Early on I became an avid Oz collector. Eventually I was on the board of directors, planning conventions, doing publication layout, and basically just saying “yes” when things needed to get done. That’s still pretty much me in a nutshell when it comes to Oz.
“Once it became an annual television event, and watching it became a family tradition, it also pervaded our culture. Now it’s something we all share.”
Why do you think The Wizard of Oz has such an enduring appeal?
The basic storyline of Oz is timeless and it’s something everyone relates to. We all want to be smart and loved and confident. Everyone wants to feel safe in a secure home. And we all face obstacles that become less daunting when we have friends who help us get through them. Baum also gives us a heroine who is determined and plucky, but young enough to be vulnerable. A young reader would want her for a friend. In the book she’s maybe 7 or 8 and it’s a real adventure, not a dream. A kid can just get entirely caught up in vicariously living her story. The MGM films adds this wonderful layer of music, talent, brilliant design — pretty much everything that’s going to pull viewers right into the heart of a fantastic world. It’s effortless to suspend all belief and just accept the story as it plays out. Once it became an annual television event, and watching it became a family tradition, it also pervaded our culture. Now it’s something we all share.
In Finding Dorothy, I posit that part of the appeal of the story is Girl Power. Do you agree? What is the most important message in the Oz story in your opinion.
Absolutely! Oz is very much a story about assertive, decisive females. In the first book, Dorothy knocks the dust out of those perfectly sturdy silver shoes and puts them on. She befriends people asking for food and lodging. She worries she’s been gone from home so long Aunt Em and Uncle Henry will have given up on her. By the time she is enslaved and becomes angry enough to pick up her bath water and throw it at the Wicked Witch, she’s well establish as a child who will speak her mind and defend her friends. She promptly rescues her friends, takes command of the Flying Monkeys, confronts the Wizard. She just really behaves like her youth is not a consideration that should hold her back.
That position grows in the subsequent Oz books as the rightful ruler of Oz, a girl queen, is restored to the throne and Glinda, the Sorceress of the South, assumes the role of a maternal advisor. Women establish the rule of law in Oz, and characteristics associated with female gender back when Baum was writing–like compassion, benevolence, tenderness, and forgiveness–always triumph in the face of antagonist or adversity.
“That position grows in the subsequent Oz books as the rightful ruler of Oz, a girl queen, is restored to the throne and Ginda, the Sorceress of the South, assumes the role of a maternal advisor. Women establish the rule of law in Oz, and characteristics associated with female gender back when Baum was writing–like compassion, benevolence, tenderness, and forgiveness–always triumph in the face of antagonist or adversity.”
What is something surprising that you’ve learned about L. Frank Baum and the Baum family?
I’ve been immersed in Oz since before I was old enough to read. Since at least the 1970s have read every book related to Baum that I could get my hands on, and have been to all the communities where he lived. I’m sure there were things that surprised me when I first learned them, like that he wrote under so many pseudonyms.
You are a real expert about everything related to Oz, including the history of the Baum family that I recount in Finding Dorothy. How does it feel to read a fictionalized version when you know the true facts?
It’s a wonderful way to bring to life characters who were real people, and to give us a vivid picture of what life was like for them. Reading Finding Dorothy I felt like I was watching Maud walk across campus, standing in the Baums’ Chicago living room, hearing Matilda’s voice, and watching Baum play with his boys. That kind of narrative can be more engaging to read than biographies. Fascinating and fun! They certainly introduce readers to people and events they might otherwise never think to pursue, but will those readers stop with the novels or look further? Those that won’t turn to the non-fiction may never learn which parts of a novel are true and which parts aren’t. So then there’s the concern of rewriting history, with people perpetuating the fiction because they assume that’s what happened. It can be hard for people who really care about the difference to sort it out down the road.
“Those that won’t turn to the non-fiction may never learn which parts of a novel are true and which parts aren’t. So then there’s the concern of rewriting history, with people perpetuating the fiction because they assume that’s what happened. It can be hard for people who really care about the difference to sort it out down the road. ”
Can you give us an example of a myth about L. Frank Baum that has been perpetuated, but is inaccurate?
The Parable of Populism is a great example. Not a shred of that theory was actually based on Baum’s intent, interests, or beliefs. Henry Littlefield (the person who first came up with that theory) was just teaching summer-school history in the 60s to a bunch of high schoolers while reading the Wizard of Oz to his own kids at night. He saw knitting them together as a teaching tool to help his students remember that period’s politics. Totally a mnemonic. But here were are now sixty years later and that theory is widely taught as Baum’s intent.
Forget that Baum supported McKinley and Woman’s’ Suffrage! Suddenly he’s a populist?
Forget that Baum supported McKinley and Woman’s’ Suffrage! Suddenly he’s a populist? The theory has taken on a life of its own; I doubt there’s any way to stop. So my feelings are always mixed when Baum, Oz, and related topics get served up with lots of fiction trimmings. I hope for the best — interest will pick up and more readers who’ve never given a thought to it before will look into the available research about Baum, Matilda (lots of info to be found on both of them), and the making of the classic MGM movie.
Well, I certainly agree with you about that! Writing fiction about real people is always a delicate balance, but my greatest hope is that people’s first response to reading (or watching) a story based on fact is to go out and find out what the true story really was!
Follow Jane as she walks through an exhibition about L. Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and narrates what she is seeing.