Friday Fictions: The “Wizard of Oz” series by L. Frank Baum

This week’s Friday Fiction is the “Wizard of Oz” series–the portion by L. Frank Baum. I don’t mean that I dislike the books written by other authors, but rather that I’ve never read any of them.

All are free to read at Project Gutenberg.

I find it impossible to sum up the series because the books are so different from each other, but they’re mostly fantasy adventures of Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas, who gets transported to the wacky magical Land of Oz. Over the course of the stories she becomes a Princess, makes loads of friends, solves magical problems, and so forth. They’re written for kids but you can find political/socio/economic jabs in there if you’re paying attention.

I think most Anglo readers encounter the first book, the musical, or the movie through cultural osmosis by age 10. The first book, while very fun, is very different thematically from the rest of the books. Which is probably why I didn’t know until I was a teen that there was a whole series after! Baum essentially expands on the world of Oz and its magical inhabitants and all their weird adventures.

It must have helped that Baum was untroubled by the notions of “continuity” and “consistency” and pretty freely either retconned or wholesale ignored contradictory bits in his earlier books as he went on. He also, like Doyle, attempted to can the series at one point but was convinced to retcon that as well after a massive outpouring of written protest from kids.

As a kid, what I loved about the books was the completely nutters “magic” “system” of Oz, which was basically whatever tf Baum felt like making up–BUT he apparently had occasional fits of fans-arguing-on-the-internet levels of specificity:

“The very fact that Dorothy lived in Oz, and had been made a Princess by her friend Ozma, prevented her from being killed or suffering any great bodily pain as long as she lived in that fairyland. She could not grow big, either, and would always remain the same little girl who had come to Oz, unless in some way she left that fairyland or was spirited away from it. But Dorothy was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed” in other ways by evil magicians, were she not properly protected.”

I also must say that I wouldn’t have liked it half as much without the gorgeous illustrations of John R. Neill, whose Ozma went through several evolutions to become a Gibson Girl swathed in impossibly, gorgeously flowy robes. I don’t actually like Ozma that much as a person or a ruler, but she is one of my Princess Aesthetics Ideals. It influenced me hugely (right up there with Sailor Moon!) as a scribbling teenager. In fact, looking back, the fact that the series was so girl-centric is probably a large reason that I loved it so much. There are a number of dudes in the books but they’re … honestly … mostly set-dressing. Girls do the majority of the fighting and the magic.

As an adult, I still enjoy everything above–especially the art–but when I do a reread, I find myself interested in the fairly unvarnished ways that his brains made it into the books. For instance, in The Road to Oz, the Tin Woodman goes on a rant about how money does not exist in Oz and is a terrible thing (one wonders how he would know that, if money didn’t exist in Oz …) and we should all be making transactions with love and kindness. And in a later book, Baum has Ozma (who is quite magically powerful, although insistently not ALL-powerful) deliver a lecture about how life would be pointless and sad if you had everything magically come to you and that the only joy in life is serving others and making their lives better.

Whatever you think of those two opinions, Baum held some indisputably shitty ones. He wrote two very nasty pieces about Native American genocide. Like, even for the time, I think they were astonishingly awful. I wouldn’t say this really comes through in the books, but there is a pretty stark omission of non-white shades of skin, whether it’s for the humans or the fairies.

And on a far pettier note, it always annoyed me that Ozma outlawed the practice of magic other than for herself, Glinda, and the Wizard. It rather seems pointless when the entire land of Oz is … magical … and seems unnecessarily hierarchical when you’ve got an essentially socialist country. But I guess if everyone can have an emerald the size of a sofa in their living room, then you need something to distinguish the ruler …

But you know what, we can do better. In fact I like to think that Baum predicted that we would. Here is a quote from his foreword to The Emerald City of Oz:

Perhaps I should admit on the title page that this book is “By L. Frank Baum and his correspondents,” for I have used many suggestions conveyed to me in letters from children. Once upon a time I really imagined myself “an author of fairy tales,” but now I am merely an editor or private secretary for a host of youngsters whose ideas I am requested to weave into the thread of my stories.

These ideas are often clever. They are also logical and interesting. So I have used them whenever I could find an opportunity, and it is but just that I acknowledge my indebtedness to my little friends.

My, what imaginations these children have developed! Sometimes I am fairly astounded by their daring and genius. There will be no lack of fairy-tale authors in the future, I am sure.

About that, he was certainly correct.

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Friday Fictions: “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge

This week’s Friday Fiction is the terrifying and beautiful “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You know the Rilke quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”? This. This is what he was talking about.

So let’s jump into the plot. Zéphine is the crown princess of Retrouvailles, a nation guarded by an army of magical unicorns who have a contract with the queen, the Reine-Licorne. Zéphine, whose title is Demoiselle la Plus Pure, must perform the unicorn dance on her nineteenth birthday, when she begins to look for a suitor. And at the unicorn dance, she presents a suitor to the army of unicorns. If they like him, the two can wed and one day Zéphine will become the new Reine-Licorne. If they don’t approve … they run the man through on their horns. Repeat every full moon.

That’s a pretty good taste of the aesthetics of this story. And it only escalates from there, and I loved every bloody minute of it.

I love stories that takes the beautiful and make it terrifying. In fact, l generally love stories with a little bite to them. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the occasional happy ending where everyone wins, but my favorite stories all have some sort of sacrifice. Some sort of unfathomable choice being made. I’m sure this speaks volumes about myself and my worldview.

(Or, let’s bring in guest lecturer Edward Elric: “A lesson without pain is meaningless. For you cannot gain anything without sacrificing something else in return, but once you have overcome it and made it your own, you will gain an irreplaceable fullmetal heart.”)

And this is true of the story. Zéphine loses everything she loves over the course of the story, but she does gain something too: self-determination. In the beginning of the story, she’s hating herself for being too weak to commit suicide. By the end of the story, she’s surveying the wreckage of her life and kingdom and helping rebuild both. And she is willing to fight for herself. Bleed for her people. And the others around her learn from her lesson as well, and take their own steps. She has a hard-won, clear-eyed understanding of her world and how to work within it. She doesn’t hide from the beautiful terror; she embraces it and makes it her own.

Long live Zéphine, la Reine-Licorne.

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Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

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The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

I’m so happy to say that my story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”, is out today in both audio and text form at Escape Pod!

What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message?

And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost?

Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls …

This story contains: life, death, love, sacrifice, linear algebra, electricity & magnetism, particle physics, and a very small smattering of quantum mechanics. You know, all the usual Kara obsessions.

Of note, the audio is narrated by the amazing Katherine Inskip, whom I was lucky enough to meet at Worldcon in Dublin. If she had delivered my college physics lectures, I might have gone to more of them.

As the Homunculi say: Thank you for reading. Or listening!

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