9/6/12 - the orphan dorothy, joyless kansas, and oz

In today's excerpt - the joyless gray prairies of Kansas, as depicted in Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz—the great American fairytale whose message was more "self-reliance" than "no place like home." Baum first lived in upstate New York, but visited Kansas on tour with his failing acting troupe in the late 1800s, and viewed it as the bleakest part of the country. The middle of the country was bleak and forbidding—long before the dustbowl days of the Great Depression. In the mid-1800s, the great railroad companies, in conjunction with the U.S. government, had attempted to populate new towns along the new transcontinental railway by recruiting from the East coast and offering free land. They had limited success so had supplemented their efforts by recruiting farmers from Europe. The farmers in these regions faced an unforgiving climate, and were hit hard by the depressions of 1873 and 1893.

In the book, the bleakness of Kansas stands in contrast to the wonders of Oz, which was based on the dazzling world exposition held in Chicago in 1893. In the MGM movie based on the book, Dorothy's family was warmhearted and smiling. However, Baum's book depicted the orphan Dorothy's Uncle Henry and Aunt Em as sad, gray people who never laughed. Here they are described in the very first pages of Baum's classic tale:

"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 cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or 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 led down into the small, dark hole.

"When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

"When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her checks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled, now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child's laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy's merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

"Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

"It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long, silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly."


L. Frank Baum


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


HarperCollins Publishers




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