In trying to read this massive tome of L. Frank Baum’s stories that I just cracked (compliments of the wife), I thought I would write about and post each section as I read (a chapter or a few chapters at a time) and provide my own summary and insights into the story as it evolves. I don’t really get a chance to do fiction summaries and observations as much these days, and it is a really great skill to work on to stay sharp in the reading comprehension department.
Full disclosure: I am familiar with The Wizard of Oz, but I have never read the books, and I know there is a lot more to it than just a witch and a yellow brick road. I will periodically post these as I read the book, so hopefully you enjoy and perhaps, like me, learn something along the way.
Chapter one summary: The Cyclone
The first chapter of the book begins with descriptions of the dull life of Dorothy Gale. As an orphan, she lives with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em on a lonely farm in Kansas. The picture of her life is unexciting and helps inform the audience of the dire nature of her existence.
“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 roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the bed.”
This passage reads as boring because it is supposed to be boring. That is to say, Baum gives us a great impression of not only the life Dorothy is living but also from her perspective of life on the farm. He could have written: “Here there was a house, and in the house was an uncle, an aunt, and a little girl.”
We get more of the desolate nature of Dorothy’s life as we learn more about Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. The land they lived on, as the author states, has taken the shine and sparkle from them, perhaps from hardship, or perhaps from the loneliness of the place. The elements had changed them, including Aunt Em:
“They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also.”
This is a very deliberate description of Em and pairs with the description of Uncle Henry, too, who apparently “never laughed,” and only “worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was” (Baum). He is also characterized as “gray” and absent of life.
Nevertheless, there was light in this world that certainly kept Dorothy motivated in the form of her little dog Toto, who “was not gray,” and had “long, silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose.” The dour mood of the first few pages begins to dissipate shortly before the now famous tornado comes and sweeps the house away and into the sky—literally. Before the tornado arrives, Uncle Henry runs to tend to the cows and the horses and Aunt Em runs for the cellar with Dorothy behind her; but, alas, Dorothy is too late, and she and the house are swept up to the top of the tornado and are carried far away.
Again, Dorothy’s very surroundings want to destroy her, whether by a slow descent into grayness, or by outright obliteration due to a tornado.
Chapter one analysis
I think revealing the setting as a form of conflict is a really interesting way to open a book. Baum clearly understood the hardship of this sort of life and what it can do to somebody’s spirit, as he had spent time in the Dakota Territory in the late 1800s and had gone bankrupt after failing to adjust his bazaar to the “hard times” put on by a drought. I can certainly see a socioeconomic critique in this first chapter.
“In an editorial on mercantile practices written a few months after the business folded, Baum probed the heart of the matter when he wrote that customers cry “not so much for genuine worth as for something pretty and attractive at a low cost.”
Conflict drives all classic stories and typically your most interesting ones are the ones that stand the test of time. As such, there will be lots of conflicts in this book, but I am already taken with the immediate hostility of the surroundings.
Baum, L. Frank. “The Wizard of Oz the First Five Novels.” Fall River Press, 2014.
KOUPAL, NANCY TYSTAD. “THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF THE WEST: L. FRANK BAUM IN SOUTH DAKOTA, 1888-91.” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 4, 1989, pp. 203–215. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23531112. Accessed 8 July 2021.