A Novel for Oz Lovers: Finding Dorothy

I have been an Oz devotee since I was a little girl. I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read the book (and many of the sequels, by L. Frank Baum and others). A while back I read a biography of Baum, Finding Oz, by Evan I. Schwartz, a rather academic but interesting book, which included much information about Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, a remarkable woman in her own right and the daughter of a famous suffragist, Matilda Joslyn Gage.

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The cover of Elizabeth Letts’ novel Finding Dorothy makes no mention of Oz, and I’m not sure what bit of serendipity made me pick it up at the bookstore. Finding Dorothy is a well-researched rendering of Maud Baum’s life, from her years as an early female undergraduate at Cornell University to her involvement in the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1938.

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The novel flips between the ups and downs of the Baums’ marriage (two very different people devoted to one another, she the pragmatist holding the family together, he the creative and imaginative one, diving into one adventure after another) and Maud’s fervent desire to protect Frank’s legacy as she watches the filming of the movie. She worries about Judy Garland and tries to protect her from some of the harsher realities of Hollywood. Unable to get her hands on a script (“It’s a work in progress,” she’s told again and again), she worries about the changes from book to film.

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Where Schwartz’ book tries to find the basis for The Wizard of Oz in nineteenth century politics (I was not entirely convinced), Letts finds Dorothy in Maud’s life and her relationships with her family. We recognize bits and pieces of Oz in Frank’s interactions with their children, and we come to understand why Maud, who had four sons but no daughters, feels so strongly about Dorothy.

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The picture Letts paints of a woman’s life in the late nineteenth century is frightening. The dangers of childbirth (largely unpreventable, contraceptives being illegal) and infant mortality, the isolated life Maud’s sister faced on the Dakota prairie, the lack of women’s rights in general. Maud’s mother and her friends (she worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others) spent their lives fighting for the right to vote; that came some twenty years after Matilda’s death.

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Letts adds an Afterword, describing how she came to her interest in Maud’s life, how she changed a few things here and there, and what became of some of the people in Maud’s life. Maud was born in 1861 and lived until 1955—what changes she saw!

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Finding Dorothy is a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, and her equally remarkable husband. Without Maud’s love and support, Frank Baum might never have written The Wizard of Oz, and the world would be poorer for that.