Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

Starting a new book this week - The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine

Synopsis from publisher:

In the first major literary biography of L. Frank Baum, Rebecca Loncraine tells the story of Oz as you've never heard it, with a look behind the curtain at the vivid life and eccentric imagination of its creator.

The Real Wizard of Oz is an imaginatively written work that stretches the genre of biography and enriches our understanding of modern fairytales. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its thirteen sequels, lived during eventful times in American history-- from 1856 to 1919-- that influenced nearly every aspect of his writing, from the Civil War to Hollywood, which was emerging as a modern Emerald City full of broken dreams and humbug wizards, to the gulf between America's prairie heartland, with its wild tornadoes, and its cities teeming with "Tin Man" factory workers. This is a colorful portrait of one man's vivid and eccentric imagination and the world that shaped it. Baum's famous fairytale is filled with the pain of the economic uncertainties of the Gilded Age and with a yearning for real change, ideas which many contemporary Americans will recognize. The Wizard of Oz continues to fascinate and influence us because it explores universal themes of longing for a better world, homesickness and finding inner strength amid the storms.

My thoughts so far:

This is a very well-written biography. I've just finished part 1, which details Baum's life from birth until he gets the idea to move from upstate New York, where his family lives, to South Dakota, with his wife and two young sons. Here's why I say this is well-written - nothing happens. And by nothing, I mean a whole bunch of little things, but nothing big to grab your attention or force you to take notice. This is, so far, just the story of a family struggling to make ends meet, weathering the ups and downs of their fortunes, celebrating life and mourning death. No astonishing tragedy - just the normal small sorrows of life in the 1800s in America. And while they certainly had their share of sorrows, the family didn't disintigrate or splinter, but stayed a close knit, loving group. It's just so refreshingly NORMAL. I'm loving it.

That's not to say that Baum was a normal young man. He and his brother created their own newspaper as teens, he traveled the country with an acting troupe as a young man, and married an intelligent, college educated woman who didn't promise to obey her husband in their wedding vows. (His mother-in-law was Mathilda Joslyn Gage, one of the prominant forces behind the women's suffrage movement.) It's pretty clear that this guy is not going to have a "normal" life, and the author has been intentional about giving glimpses into the factors that influenced Baum's stories - the unusual yellow pavement in the city he lived in as a young man, the balloning craze that swept the country, the horrible tornados reported in the west. She is building the groundwork for Baum's fantastic world, drawn from the mundane details of his life. It's fascinating.

Early in the book, she makes a statement that surprised me - "Before Baum wrote the tale of Dorothy's journey from Kansas to Oz and back again, it didn't exist, and America had no modern fairy tale of its own." That hadn't occured to me before, but it's certainly true. The Wizard of Oz is America's first, great fairy tale. I've realized that I have never read the book myself, so I'm planning a read to coincide with my reading of this biography. I think it will be an interesting study.

I mentioned this last week, but after the fact - The Nonfiction Files has a friend! Jehara is going to be posting a weekly Nonfiction Files at her blog, as well. Make sure you stop by - she's currently reading what I think would be a pretty interesting biography of poet Anne Sexton. And, of course, the more the merrier - feel free to play along with us if you'd like. Just let me know, and I'll link to your post, as well.


Anonymous said...

Now that looks fascinating. Is it a recent book? I'm off now tosee if it's been published in the UK, but I have a review of another author biography to write today or tomorrow, so I'll link back to you. Let's see if we can;t raise the profile of non-fiction a little more!

Carrie said...

I, too, thought this one was very well written. Made it a very engaging book and one that included a lot to think about.

Zibilee said...

I had never heard of this book before, and despite the fact that there is not too much action as of yet, I think this sounds like a very interesting read. I think it's really imaginative for Baum to have used small details in his experiences in the world to create the world of Oz, and I am really looking forward to reading this book. I will be following the posts on this book to see what you finally think of the whole thing. Great review!

Kristen M. said...

This one is already on my TBR list but now I may move it up. I'm glad that it's well-written. I probably know a bit of the info since I own the Annotated Wizard of Oz but I haven't read that in years anyway so I bet this book will still seem fresh.

jehara said...

that sounds really fascinating. i think i would like to read this at some point too. i can't remember if i've read the wizard of oz, but i received ozma of oz as a gift when i was younger and i loved it. i read it several times. you find such interesting nonfiction books to read.