Friday, October 15, 2010

The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine

I was an avid reader as a child - picked up just about anything I could get my hands on and easily got addicted to books in a series. Beyond the usual Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High books there was the Oz series. Bet you didn't know that L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz was just the first book in a lengthy series spanning decades? The series was even continued after Baum's death. I didn't read them all, but I loved the ones I read (and still have them,) so when I came across this biography of Baum I was excited to learn more about the author's life and how Oz came alive for him to share its tales with us.

The Real Wizard of Oz takes us through Baum's entire life, most of which was spent doing other things than writing about the magical land of Oz. Baum was an actor, a playwright, a store owner, traveling salesman, and journalist. He lived all over the country throughout the late 1800's and early 20th Century. He saw the U.S. grow up right in his backyard. Eventually ending up in California, Baum bought property in Hollywood when it was just a bunch of empty land.

What I liked most about Baum - he lived in the moment. At a time when the world was struggling through wars and economic depressions Baum lived to meet his family's sometimes extravagant needs. What I liked least about the book - the author's writing style. We get way too much boring information right from the start of the book. I really didn't need to know about the births and young deaths of everyone in Baum's extended family.

The narrative also gets extremely choppy. Details that seem to go together either because they're similar in nature or contradict each other are strung together in a way where you feel the author is just listing facts one on top of the other, cramming things into paragraph form just to get every little detail into the biography.

One particular aspect of Loncraine's writing style gnawed away at me throughout the book and ultimately killed it for me. She assumes so much about the people she's writing about, which would be fine normally since all her characters are dead, but she tells you about each assumption (most of which add absolutely nothing to the narrative.) I don't need to know that Loncraine assumed Baum's wife thought the sounds of him writing on the wallpaper were like rats scurrying around the house. The interesting thing is that Baum took notes on the wallpaper by his bed at night when ideas came to him in his sleep. This unique aspect of Baum's life is diluted by the addition of Loncraine's assumptive detail.

In Loncraine's defense though, her narrative style isn't all bad. There are some very well-written, colorful bits of detail. If the whole story was written using that same style, the book would have been amazing. As is, these bits are more like hidden gems that appear without any warning as you read. Loncraine also shares a lot of details about Baum's life that I didn't know so I felt like I learned a lot about who he really was. I didn't know that Baum wrote under multiple pseudonyms in order to compartmentalize the different genres he wrote for, only using his real name for his "fairy tales," or that the Oz series was considered one of the first modern day fairy tales.

All in all, this book was disappointing in style but worth the time as far as the content. The goal of the book is achieved - to share the life story of L. Frank Baum, however I would have preferred it to have been authored by someone else.

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