The Road to Oz is the fifth of L. Frank Baum's immortal Oz series, published in 1909. Like its predecessor Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, it follows Dorothy on another difficult journey to Oz with a group of entertaining companions. Sure, by this point it's a formula, but it's a winning formula and Road to Oz is great fun.
It's also very blatantly written for the stage -- which is not a bad thing, either. When reading it one can easily imagine it being performed by a small touring company. I think working within the limits of the stage technology of the day had a good effect on Baum, forcing him to concentrate on engaging characters and clever dialogue.
Probably the biggest single flaw with the book is its utter lack of suspense. By now the reader knows that Dorothy is completely unstoppable. She's on the Road to Oz -- is there any doubt that she's going to get there? No. Therefore all the entertainment has to come from how much fun the reader has watching her get there. Fortunately, Baum was firing on all cylinders this time.
We begin back in Kansas, where a tramp called the Shaggy Man asks Dorothy the way to Butterfield. Kansas has changed in the past few years. It's no longer the monochrome wasteland we saw in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's sunny, there's a fruit-laden apple tree growing by Dorothy's house, and for once Uncle Henry seems to be doing all right. But then, 1909 was a good year in America: the economy had recovered from the Panic of 1907 (thanks to the intervention of an unlikely Good Wizard, J.P. Morgan). Under the benevolent direction of President Taft's magnificent mustache, America was enjoying its last few summers of untroubled peace and prosperity before the 20th Century tried to tear itself apart.
Amid all this prosperity, the Shaggy Man is a rebel, though a low-key and charming one. He doesn't like money because it makes people "proud and haughty." He gets along by begging, odd jobs, and petty theft of the pie-on-the-windowsill variety. Somewhat disturbingly, he pockets Toto while Dorothy is in the house getting her bonnet, raising the possibility that the Shaggy Man is uncomfortably broad-minded about his diet.
To a modern reader, the idea of a little girl going off unsupervised with a Shaggy Man is startling, even if the little girl in question is Dorothy. This is not made any less disturbing when the Shaggy Man reveals that he is the owner of the Love Magnet, a device which makes everyone love him as soon as they meet him. (Try and say the name "The Love Magnet" without sounding vaguely sleazy. Go ahead.) Of course, in turn-of-the-century Kansas schools and parenting advice books weren't quite as devoted to making people paranoid about strangers, but still . . .
This does raise the question of how little a girl Dorothy actually is. In Wizard (1901) she seems to be about seven or eight, and in the later books she's a little bit older. W.W. Denslow made her look like a chubby little girl, but John R. Neill drew her as more tall and willowy, perhaps ten years old. Of course, since Road was published eight years after Wizard, even if you assume she was only six on her first visit to Oz, Dorothy should be in her early teens by the time the Shaggy Man comes calling with his Love Magnet. This is sounding more and more like the opening scene of a porno movie.
Dorothy attempts to show the Shaggy Man which road leads to Butterfield, but there's fairy enchantment at work. The roads shift and change when she's not looking, so that Dorothy is soon lost even though she has barely left her uncle's farm. This is actually a great scene, and avoids all the tedious hand-waving of storms at sea, cyclones, and earthquakes required to get Dorothy out of the "civilized country" of Kansas and into the land of adventure. Instead, she simply takes a wrong turn and enters the Otherworld. I wonder if Roger Zelazny was a fan of this book: the idea of simply walking or driving to another world shows up in several of his works. The royal family of Amber can "hellride" between worlds, and the superhighway in Roadmarks has off-ramps throughout time and space.
As Dorothy and the Shaggy Man follow a road chosen more or less at random, they come upon a little boy in a sailor suit digging a hole. This is Button-Bright, who is . . . that is to say he's a bit . . . well, let's just say he's got special needs. Okay, he's stupid. Really, really, really stupid. His favorite phrase is "don't know," and that's his answer to just about all the questions Dorothy and the Shaggy Man pose him. His nickname appears to be a bit of vicious sarcasm on the part of his parents.
Having seen my two kids through early childhood, I know that there's an amazing amount of stuff they don't know. Even not knowing his parents' names is actually quite realistic. But I do find Button-Bright unrealistic in how laconic he is. Most children of my acquaintance wouldn't be content with just saying "don't know" when they don't know things. They'd cheerfully go on and make stuff up, or throw out a lot of irrelevant details and anecdotes. That's what makes Button-Bright seem not just childishly ignorant but mentally subnormal.
Fearing for the little half-wit's safety if left on his own, Dorothy and the Shaggy Man invite him to accompany them. They don't know where they're going, either, but Dorothy is pretty sure she's going to get to Oz eventually, because she always winds up there.
Next time, things get weirder.