by Nils Peterson
On a small paper bag maybe from a bookstore, one side Romeo’s soliloquy, “But soft! What light from yonder window breaks?” On the other side, these words: “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cook stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three of four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder the small, dark hole. When Dorothy stood in the doo she nothing but the great gray…”
The open spaces are where an illustration of the feet of the wicked witch sticking out from under the fallen house, intrudes upon the text.
No wonder Oz looked so green. I read the book when I was a boy. That’s a lot of years ago. I had forgotten how bleak the opening of the book was. This is what you lose when you just remember the movie and not the text. Oh, yes, the opening of the movie was in black and white, but it was not this black and white. There are no farm hands, no Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, or Jack Haley giving Uncle Henry a hand. Of course no running water or plumbing, therefore an outhouse. Dorothy likely is an orphan unless her parents had so many children they couldn’t take care of them all. Also, she was a young girl, not yet a teen. That’s why Judy Garland found the role uncomfortable to play. Her breasts had to be bound.
Over the course of twenty books, Dorothy goes to live in Oz full time and eventually brings along her uncle and aunt – even her hen Billina as I recall. And it is recalling that I’m doing. It seems the farm is facing foreclosure and Oz is the solution. It’s been 80 years since I read these books. Why have I remembered them so well? What Kansas was I fleeing? Or was it just curiosity and a longing for adventure. I was also reading at the same time Tom Swift books like “Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout” and wanted to be like him, smart, capable, and handy. (Little did I know that I was being set up for a joke 15 years later when Walt Kelly wrote of “Tom Swift and His Electric Grandmother.)
We forget how revolutionary the Oz books were. There was even a transgender story line, for in The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second book, the young boy hero Tip who escapes from a household run by an evil witch, turns out to really be a young woman, Ozma, who is supposed to be Queen of Oz. She had been under a great enchantment since a baby to keep her safe from her evil enemies. He enjoys being a boy and is reluctant to change. They work at persuading him and he agrees to try being queen for awhile, but says he wants to be changed back if he doesn’t like it. Glinda tells him it’s a one-time deal. If the Oz books have already been barred in Florida, this information would cause the governor to cast them out. Let’s hope he doesn’t read this essay. (In the same book, women form an army and take over the government and men end up having to do women’s usual work. They find it very hard and even suggest that women must be made of cast iron.)
This will only seem to be off the subject. A friend sent me a poem that begins with a definition from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Ambedo – “n. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details, which lead to a dawning awareness of the fragility of life.”
His poem describes his own “melancholic trance.” Here, I think, is one of mine. Certainly I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the great moments of my young life. Here’s my attempt to capture it.
Light flooded through the stair-landing window, fired the cut glass candy dish, and broke into colors across the low bookcase. Home alone, that itself enough rapture, but now this worldly joy. I remember trying to remember it, fix it, make it stay – what was I, ten? eleven? – so beautiful. I knew it could not last, but hoped its memory could.
I was intrigued by the idea of a Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and looked it up. It is a book, a dictionary by John Koenig of words which should exist to describe certain states of our existence. Consider ozurie, a word derived from Dorothy’s visit to Oz and return. It’s a philosophical consideration of Dorothy’s state of mind – “even as she makes her way to school the next morning she carries with her a certain unshakeable awareness – that her gray gingham dress is secretly blue, that her charcoal hair is actually a ripe auburn…she’ll never be able to forget that there’s an entire dimension hidden inside things. Everything will now have a grainy reticence that feels intolerable to her…how long will it be before she’s gazing over the rainbow once again.”
He goes on to make a general statement, “Some days you wake up in Kansas and some days in Oz…for the moment, you are like Dorothy, sitting up in her bed, trying to decide which pair of slippers she wants to wear today. Black or ruby. Black or ruby… Spare a thought for poor Dorothy [who is you]…who dreams in color but lives in black and white.”
The word is derived “From Oz + the prairie, with you caught somewhere in between. Pronounced ‘oz-you-ree’ or ‘ozh-uh-ree.’” A great word. When I think back to my candy dish prism, was it a dish for holding peppermints or an entrance into the mystery of things? I realize that it certainly was a visit to Oz.
If I were in the business of writing essays about how to live your life, I would say something like “Beware of anyone who wants you to live a smaller life.” And, “Beware of anyone who only has the black slippers under his or her bed, and no ruby slippers.” Look at those who want your vote and vote for the one who is not only black and white but who might sometimes wear a ruby slipper (even if it’s a size 13 and looks like an Oxford). You’ll recognize him or her by a twinkle in the eye that speaks of the possibilities of joy.
P.S. In the book, the slippers are silver. I think the movie made a good choice here.
P.P.S. for a philosophical exploration of the nature of “over-the-rainbowness,” go to youtube and find the early Brubeck brooding over the song (along with Paul Desmond and the rest of the early quartet).