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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Wonder Tales L. Frank Baum 
8th-Jun-2006 04:50 pm
After slogging my way through The Oz Chronicles Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, I figured, why stop there? (^^;; Anyway, if you're a fan of Oz, you should definitely read the rest of Baum's fantasies.

Baum, L. Frank. Wonder Tales. Ann Arbor: Borders Classics, 2004.
-The Master Key- (1901)
Summary: The young Rob Josyln is obsessed with electricity and one day mistakenly touches the Master Key, summoning a demon who bequeaths miraculous technological gifts upon the boy, which he then uses, not for the uplift of humanity, but for his own adventures around the world. Ultimately, Rob tells the demon to keep his gifts and wait for a time when we're ready for them.
Comments: This is an early science fiction story (and probably one of THE earliest sci-fi novels for children). Technically for boys, I noticed some pseudo-science similar to The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells involving gravitation, though, ironically enough, none of the devices Baum imagined are a reality...except possibly that wireless communication device mentioned at the end. Overall, though, I'm glad Baum stuck to fantasy novels with heroines. This endeavor was ethnocentric, slightly racist, and it sported a protagonist who was reckless and irritatingly self-satisfied--the United States is the greatest nation in the world, which of course makes the boy the most superior specimen EVAR. Yeah, whatever. Also, the morality of the tale was painfully simplistic; people are either good or bad, with literal "G"s and "B"s on their foreheads. There's none of the earnest reformation of villains here, as there is in Baum's other novels.
-The Enchanted Island of Yew- (1903)
Summary: An immortal fairy assumes the form of a human boy for a single year and adventures through the five kingdoms of the island of Yew. "Prince Marvel" thus encounters and reforms a King of Thieves and another king who is a tyrant because he is ashamed of his ugliness. He discovers the magical twin land of Twi and, lastly, rescues the girl that made his sojourn possibly in the first place. He helps the boy Nerle to learn to be satisfied with his lot.
Comments: A delightful yet unambitious little adventure story in standard Baum style that prefigures The Marvelous Land of Oz in that the boy is actually a fairy...or the reverse, as the case may be. Though I was rather skeptical that the thieves could so "easily" reform and become honest men, the entirety of the story conforms to an overall ethos of non-violence that Baum seems to have developed even this early on in his writings for children. The twilight land of Twi, where everyone and everything has a twin, was among the most delightful and creative of Baum's fantastic, literary imaginings and well-worth the price of entry just by itself. Of course, that Twi is an unapproachable, utopian world ruled by a beautiful little girl (or rather two little girls who act as one) also prefigures what Baum will eventually do with Ozma and Oz.
-The Surprising Adventures of Magical Monarch of Mo and His People- (1900)
Summary: Fourteen various magical anecdotal adventures of the King of the fairyland Mo and his many offspring.
Comments: Unusual for Baum in that it does not have a sustained narrative, this book was actually a compilation of serialized installments written before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Fans of the Oz books will be delighted to note that many of these stories directly prefigure later (and, in some cases, MUCH later) thematic and narrative threads--often written more concisely and lucidly, if not with the same investigative (I cannot in good conscience say "rigorous" because that is one thing Baum never is) depth. In fact, if you're going to read one book by L. Frank Baum, it should undoubtedly be this one. The pleasures of the Oz books tend to be too thinly-spread, so this book is a quick and dirty way to acquaint oneself with the mind of a man who created a children's fantasy world franchise that remains a household name over a hundred years later.
-Queen Zixi of Ix- (1905)
Summary: The Fairy Queen crafts a magic cloak that grants all of its wearers a single wish. The cloak is first bestowed to Fluff, shortly before her brother Bud is, in a twist of fate, declared the new king of Noland. The new royal family endures and rebuffs invasion from the witch Queen Zixi of Ix, who covets the cloak so that she will also appear young in the mirror, and later, with the help of a repentant Queen Zixi, from the Roly-Rogues. The cloak, though, ultimately is lost...and just as well.
Comments: Oddly, this book has much less "drive-by" magic than Baum's other "wonder tales" Oz and non-Oz alike; all of the major characters are normal human beings who, presumably, are not immortal and are not used to magic in their everyday lives. All magical action comes from the cloak, and, as in The Master Key, not all items of power are good for humanity. So, while less fascinating from a sheer fantasy point of view (though we do get yet another weird race), the story is more tightly-woven. It's also definitely more unified than usual, with a clear moral--not everything we wish for is good for us or, more conventionally, "Be Careful What You Wish For." The characters in this novel also make cameo appearances at Ozma's birthday celebration in The Road to Oz.
-John Dough and the Cherub- (1906)
Summary: A baker mistakenly uses the Great Elixir of Life that his wife was keeping in trust for an Arab to make a life-sized gingerbread man. The elixir brings the gingerbread man John Dough to life, and soon, he is on the run and island-hopping, fleeing from both from the islands' native dangers and the angry Arab. In the end, with the help of Chick the Cherub, he becomes the king of Hiland and Loland.
Comments: John Dough is a classic Baum animated man character in that his form is unusually fragile. We do get to see him enmeshed in a straightforward moral dilemma of a sort that is unusual for a Baum protagonist--he must give up a piece of his own body to heal a little girl and doesn't, surprise surprise, want to do it because he is afraid. Makes me think of the ethics of organ donation. Chick the Cherub, an "Incubator Baby" (whatever in the Hell that's supposed to be...*visions of test tube monstrosities dance in my head*) however, is an unusual child character in one important way--its gender is never identified. Though there are tons of narrative possibilities for an androgyne, unfortunately, the author does not make use of this in any way. The fact that most of the villains were either real people or thinly-veiled disguises of non-Western nationalities made this story the least enjoyable of Baum's non-Oz tales for me, hands down.
-The Sea Fairies- (1911)
Summary: Mayre Griffiths, nicknamed Trot, and Cap'n Bill are invited by mermaids into their undersea kingdom. There, they are feted and taken on wondrous tours...until they are captured by the dastardly Zog, who, angry over his defeat by the sea serpent King Anko, seeks their destruction. Fortunately, Anko rescues the group just in time, and Bill's missing brother Joe, who had been enslaved by Zog, becomes the king of Zog's many liberated slaves. Then, at Anko's behest, Trot and Cap'n Bill are returned to the surface.
Comments: This novel is Baum's attempt, in the wake of The Emerald City of Oz, to start a new fantasy series with a female protagonist. Note that, thematically and geographically, he is moving away from the American Heartland to the American West. Unfortunately, the underwater world of the story lacks the immediate appeal of Oz--real-life scuba-diving is liable to be way more fun than anything Trot and Cap'n Bill did with their fish tails. Zog, the villain of the piece, was way more interesting for his slash potential (he had a devoted slave, the former prince Sacho) than for his appearance or personality; in spite of being one of Baum's more wish-washy villains, he is utterly destroyed in the end (as opposed to merely punished).
-Sky Island- (1912)
Summary: Button-Bright flies cross-country with his magic umbrella and meets Trot and Cap'n Bill. The trio mistakenly use the umbrella to travel to the magical Sky Island, which is literally in the sky. There, the encounter the Boolooroo of the Blueskins and are imprisoned, their umbrella confiscated. They are able to escape, however, to the land of the Pinkies on the other side of the island and enjoin them to help conquer their racial enemies the Blueskins and regain the umbrella. Trot becomes queen of the entire island but ultimately leaves the people who should be in power back in power.
Comments: By this point one suspects that Baum could read the writing on the wall; Button-Bright and Polychrome both characters from his Oz books. This story is by far the longest of any of the novels in this omnibus, and its narrative sustains the bigger word count beautifully; nothing feels particularly overlong. Otherwise, the plot is pretty standard; characters journeying, characters fleeing, characters going to war where no one person is killed, characters becoming monarchs. The one really interesting touch, I thought, was the Poverty Queen, a queen who lives in relative squalor so that her subjects to not get jealous and question her rule. It also, theoretically, will keep the ruler humble. Sounded like a good idea to me! Too bad it didn't stick, even in a fantasy world. Overall, a well-balanced adventure fantasy--children's pulp fiction in its day that continues to stand in good stead as the same today.
Notes: hardcover, 1st edition
Rating: 4.5, 5.5, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5.5/10 - If you're interested in Victorian children's literature and/or fantasy stories, this book is a must, and a couple of the stories are worthwhile in their own right. L. Frank Baum was the J. K. Rowling of his day, right down to the imagination-inspiring scenarios and crappy prose. This edition also includes an introduction by Robert A. Baum.
8th-Jun-2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
L. Frank Baum was the J. K. Rowling of his day, right down to the imagination-inspiring scenarios and crappy prose.

Was he voted best writer in his day too? ^^;
9th-Jun-2006 01:28 am (UTC)
Are you talking about this? I just saw it a few minutes ago on BBC. Whatta scream. I'm betting a lot of people polled either didn't recognize the names of any the other authors. ^^;
9th-Jun-2006 01:45 am (UTC)
Well if you had checked your friends list, I posted it for you this afternoon ^__^ Maybe you just blocked it out ^^;;
9th-Jun-2006 02:01 am (UTC)
Or maybe I didn't check my friends list until after I posted the BBC article. It's been a busy day. :P
1st-Jul-2006 01:39 pm (UTC)
Review archived.
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