Since the day it became the best-selling book of 1900, the world has never been without The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum's story about a Kansas girl who ascends via twister to a witch-plagued but otherwise perfect fairyland became a kid-lit classic long before the 1939 film, the most-watched motion picture ever, ensured Oz's everlasting status.
But Wizard was just the first of 14 Oz books by Baum, a series that provides a perfect introduction for younger kids to progressive politics like feminism, socialism, pacifism and multiculturalism. For older kids, however, the author’s racist writings about indigenous people outside of the books can be used as an entry point to discuss issues like colonialism and genocide.
A first edition of Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz sits on display at Christie's auction house (Reuters)
The woke groundwork is laid in the initial novel as the primary players are all female, from fearless farm girl Dorothy and the two evil witches she takes down to Glinda, the good witch who eventually helps her get home to Kansas.
The book's male characters, on the other hand, include a literal straw man, a cowardly bully, a heartless romantic and the titular dictator who maintains his unearned power through fear and fraud. They do redeem themselves but are comparatively passive.
Dorothy, however, is always proactive. Unlike most fairy tales, she's not waiting for her prince to come. While Alice arrived a few decades earlier, Baum infused his book with feminist inspiration from the then-burgeoning suffragette movements. Baum was surrounded by strong females all his life: his aunt graduated from medical school in 1852 to become one of the U.S.’s first female medical doctors, and his wife, Maude Gage, was educated at Cornell.
Dorothy, however, is always proactive. Unlike most fairy tales, she's not waiting for her prince to come.
But the real influence was his mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, a "radical feminist" who co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony; wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and dismissed witchcraft accusations as misogynistic oppression: "We have abundant proof that the so-called 'witch' was among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age."
Baum's sequel The Land of Oz starred a young boy named Tip who was actually a girl trapped in a boy’s body and eventually revealed to be the country’s monarch, Ozma, in a moment capturing the fluidity of gender identity.
"Speaking the words with sweet diffidence, she said: 'I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I'm just the same Tip, you know; only — only — '
'Only you're different!' said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made."
General Jinjur and her all-female Army of Revolt invade the Emerald City (Getty)
The primary plot of this second book, however, was a light-hearted suffragette parody abound a female revolution led by munchkin general Jinjur.
"'Friends, fellow-citizens, and girls!' she said; 'we are about to begin our great Revolt against the men of Oz! We march to conquer the Emerald City — to dethrone the Scarecrow King — to acquire thousands of gorgeous gems — to rifle the royal treasury — and to obtain power over our former oppressors!'"
Her all-female "Army of Revolt" overthrows the Scarecrow King, albeit using knitting needles as weapons and narrowly avoiding defeat due to their fear of mice. The men, exhausted from doing housework and childcare, later wonder if "perhaps the women are made of cast-iron."
Jinjur is eventually overthrown — by Glinda's own all-female force — but rather than restoring the stuffed shirt king, Ozma returns the nation to its natural matriarchal state as established by Oz's fairy founder Queen Lurline. In later books, Dorothy returns and is joined by more strong females like Betsy Bobbins, Billina the yellow hen, Patchwork Girl and Polychrome the Rainbow’s Daughter.
The series' feminism sparked numerous bans over the years for "depicting women in strong leadership roles" and for its socialist economics.
"If we used money to buy things with, instead of love and kindness and the desire to please one another, then we should be no better than the rest of the world," declared the Tin Woodman in The Road to Oz. "We have no rich, and no poor; for what one wishes the others all try to give him, in order to make him happy, and no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use."
Ozma rides her Saw-Horse on the cover of the Emerald City of Oz (Getty)
This is elaborated on in The Emerald City of Oz, where the narrator explains:
"Each man and woman, no matter what he or she produced for the good of the community, was supplied by the neighbours with food and clothing and a house and furniture and ornaments and games. If by chance the supply ever ran short, more was taken from the great storehouses of the Ruler, which were afterward filled up again when there was more of any article than the people needed."
The books are also adamantly pacifist. Baum's final book Glinda of Oz, written near the end of the First World War, was about Dorothy and Ozma trying to stop a war between the Skeezers and the Flatheads, while in Emerald City Ozma argues that "Because the Nome King intends to do evil is no excuse for my doing the same," adding that even in the face of an invasion, "No one has the right to destroy any living creatures, however evil they may be, or to hurt them or make them unhappy. I will not fight, even to save my kingdom."
Dorothy and her companions gather in the court of Princess Ozma (Getty)
The books also promote the benefits of multiculturalism with the Munchkins, Winkies, Gillikins and Quadlings living in harmony, and each adventure assembles a diverse collection of races, animals, faeries, animated objects and even a highly magnified Woggle-Bug, who must combine their talents to win the day.
Unlike the film, the books don't pretend it was all a dream and contrast Oz’s feminist, socialist and multicultural utopia with a grey, depressed Kansas where the banks eventually foreclose on Aunt 'Em and Uncle Henry's farm.
While he said his books "bear the stamp of our times and depict the progressive fairies of the day," Baum also bore the colonial oppression of his era.
— Ryan McMahon, comedian and activist
That stark contrast unfortunately also exists between his fiction and reality. While Baum said his books "bear the stamp of our times and depict the progressive fairies of the day," he also bore the colonial oppression of his era.
A decade before he created Oz, Baum ran the Saturday Pioneer newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota. While he used the paper to "champion the cause of women" and wrote "the key to the success of our country is tolerance," he also wrote two editorials 1890 advocating genocide against the Lakota Sioux before and after the massacre of Wounded Knee.
Aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, South Dakota in 1890 (Getty)
Baum's racism, while pervasive at the time especially in the Dakotas where fighting was still a regular occurrence, cannot excuse calling for the "total annihilation of the few remaining Indians" because "the whites by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent." Even after the massacre, he called on the U.S. government to "wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth."
In 2006, two of his descendants went to South Dakota to apologize to the Sioux Nation: "We stand before you and before the citizens of both our great nations to suggest that ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ a great American fairy tale, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, a great American tragedy, be forever joined in the hearts, minds and memories of all our people."
Baum's grotesque hatred doesn't make its way into the books he wrote later but parents can similarly join them to explain to older children how horrifically First Nations were treated and how white supremacy can impact even seemingly progressive people.
Over the past century Oz has grown beyond Baum as it's been adapted and revised as new novels, musicals, comics, films and TV shows. But the social justice messages those original Oz books give children remain as important in 2017 as ever before, as does addressing the author's, and North America's, problematic past.
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