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.