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Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story Hardcover – April 23, 2009
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A groundbreaking new look at an American icon, The Wizard of Oz. Finding Oz tells the remarkable tale behind one of the world's most enduring and best loved stories. Offering profound new insights into the true origins and meaning of L. Frank Baum's 1900 masterwork, it delves into the personal turmoil and spiritual transformation that fueled Baum's fantastical parable of the American Dream. Prior to becoming an impresario of children's adventure tales--the J. K. Rowling of his age--Baum failed at a series of careers and nearly lost his soul before setting out on a journey of discovery that would lead to the Land of Oz. Drawing on original research, Evan Schwartz debunks popular misconceptions and shows how the people, places, and events in Baum's life gave birth to his unforgettable images and characters. The Yellow Brick Road was real, the Emerald City evoked the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and Baum's mother-in-law, the radical women's rights leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, inspired his dual view of witches--as good and wicked. A narrative that sweeps across late nineteenth-century America, Finding Oz ultimately reveals how failure and heartbreak can sometimes lead to redemption and bliss, and how one individual can ignite the imagination of the entire world.
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|Framed pencil stub in Baum's Chicago home, 1899||The world of Oz, as created by L. Frank Baum.|
From Publishers Weekly
Author and former business journalist Schwartz (The Last Lone Inventor) presents the life story of L. Frank Baum, focusing on the invention and development of his classic 1900 children's tale, The Wizard of Oz. Schwartz reveals how Baum's early interest in theatre, tall tales, and entertaining an audience led the restless young man through a string of doomed careers, including actor, playwright, castor oil salesman, and shop owner (trading in knickknacks and toys). In spite of pressure to support his family (his mother-in-law was the radical women's rights activist Matilda Gage), Baum maintained a passion for the fantastical, and sought pleasure in every venture he undertook, often by way of his talent for yarn-spinning (famously embellishing the properties and popularity of his dismal castor oil). Falling on hard times again and again, Baum had little to keep him going besides love for his growing family and for storytelling; fortunately, those were just the ingredients necessary to find his place as an author (he published the first Oz title when he was 44) and, ultimately, as a children's lit icon. A dad himself, Schwartz tells Baum's story with understanding and wit, perfect for anyone with fond memories from over the rainbow.
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And I was definitely a little disappointed.
As other reviewers have suggested, the story is A LOT speculation. A variety of interesting ideas were presented, but the reading felt a little monotonous. I wanted facts.
The last three chapters of the book were the best - they essentially summarized in a more concise manner what had been stated in the rest of the book and really contained the content I had so desired when purchasing this book.
Do I regret reading this book? Not at all. The Wizard of Oz is one of my all time favorite movies and I've always enjoyed learning more about the story. As America's first real and very beloved fairy tale, it was great to learn about where it came from and the dynamic forces that inspired some of the characters and concepts. This book puts to rest the myth that the story is a parable about the industrial revolution.
Evan I. Schwartz came upon the notion to document Baum's life while he was reading America's most enduring fairy tale to his 2nd grade daughter at bedtime. Internet rumors contend that Baum must've been on something when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that he must've frolicked in his own poppy field. And then there's the myth of the Wizard as a "parable of politics, of the populist movement in the 1890s." Schwartz meant to get to the bottom of things, maybe debunk an allegory or two. He embarked on a road of research. He visited Baum's past homes, accessed archives of his letters and newspaper writings, and interviewed his descendants.
L. Frank Baum was nearly 44 when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, but before that he fulfilled the trope of the struggling writer, having attempted and failed miserably at a myriad of other careers (including chicken breeding). He went on to pen thirteen Oz sequels, never mind that Schwartz tends to sweep that under the rug. The biography instead focuses on Baum's most celebrated novel and examines the real-life events and the spiritual transformation - thank you, theosophy, you weird new age faith, you - that inspired Baum to write that story. There's mention of the very real yellow brick roads in Peekskill, New York, wherein Baum attended Peekskill Military Academy. Schwartz posits a scenario in which a young Baum newly arrived to town would have asked for directions to his new school. Odds are that some helpful passerby would've advised him to "Follow the yellow brick road."
Schwartz refers to Baum's crossing paths with several larger-than-life figures in American history - folks like Thomas Edison and that incomparable huckster, P.T. Barnum - that served as models for Baum's Wonderful Wizard. Generous passages are dedicated to the women in Baum's life, his loving wife, Maud, but most notably his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was one of the most radical pioneers in women's suffrage. Baum cast Matilda in the dual roles of the Good and Wicked Witches. She may even have impacted Baum's perception of his most iconic heroine, the self-reliant Dorothy Gale.
Schwartz depicts Baum as a man of lively imagination - but of deep personal conflict - who lived in an interesting period of American history. For those of us who'd only ever experienced The Wizard of Oz thru the classic 1939 MGM picture, this biography offers a reverent, sometimes speculative behind-the-scenes peek at the film's source material, at its origins, at the things that inspired and influenced him what wrote the thing. I enjoyed reading it. Having read other Baum biographies, I appreciate the new details and insights this writer provides. It's a bit disappointing, though, that Schwartz elects to cut his narrative short once Baum achieves success with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The epilogue does touch briefly on Baum's life, post-1900, but any reference to the Oz sequels could be summed up with this passage: "Clearly, all of Baum's Oz books derived their magic from the original one, and nothing else that Frank created would ever approach the brilliance of The wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was as if he had possessed for only a very short time a special mystical object - not unlike Dorothy's magic slipers that were forever lost when returned home to Kansas." As a fan of the entire Oz collection, I'm miffed at that. I think that the immediate sequels are pretty good, particularly The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. And for fans of the movie, a Postscripts section delves into the making of the MGM film.
Other recommended L. Frank Baum biographies:
- The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull & Kevin Hawkes (geared towards children)
- L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz by Angelica Shirley Carpenter & Jean Shirley
- The Historian's Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank BauM&Apos;s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory by Ranjit S. Dighe