An evening of Myth and Poetry
February 1, 2017 in Trinidad, CO
©2016 Annette Meserve
The Land of Oz
I remember the smell of the old Carnegie library that we frequented as kids, how that smell of wood floor varnish, old paper, and binding glue stayed with us as we carried armloads of books home. It was a smell that presaged the learning, learning about things and places we'd never seen. It promised new friends and grand adventure.
It’s a rare smell these days but it can be found on occasion in the few odd Carnegies that haven’t succumbed to renovation. When I find myself in one of these, the smell still makes my fingers itch to flip through a storybook that’s been taken off a tall wooden shelf.
It was the Oz series that offered me my first relationship with an author, long dead but no less vibrant in his storytelling for his passing. It didn't take long for these illustrated tombes to populate my book stack as we trundled back from the library.
Written by L. Frank Baum in the first decades of the twentieth century, the stories from his fairy country, swept me away. His world was separated from mine by only a thin stretch of Deadly Desert, not so far away, really. But it was a land where young women were powerful, talking animals had honor, and magic was used for the good of all... usually.
The more I read, the more Baum became, for me, a kindly uncle, ready to tell me stories any time I turned the cover. Through his books, I was introduced to the gentility of another age and the grace of words well used, many of the words, ones I didn’t know.
It was before fan-pages and celebrity authors, before one could look a writer up on Wikipedia and learn personal details in seconds. So I knew very little about the man himself but that didn’t matter. I knew the important things about him because I had his words in my hands and with them, he would pick me up and carry me to a place of wonder, a place where problems were solved with cleverness, a place where even the Gnome King had to be polite.
There have been many stories and series of stories since then but I will always regard Baum as the uncle who taught me to read fiction.
As an adult, I’ve seen analyses of Baum’s work, experts proposing that his characters, his plot lines, indeed the Land of Oz itself, were metaphors for the circumstances of his time. Commentary couched in story.
In this, my dear uncle offers me another teaching on the power of fiction in its ability to explore alternate routes within a make-believe world. Within the imaginary, a writer can play with the building blocks of a society, combining them in ways different than in the real world. She can watch how the things react to each other, simulate scenarios, find creative solutions.
Baum hasn’t been alone in examining the world through fiction. Many authors before him and since have used story to say what couldn’t be said plainly. The beauty of the medium is that it can be entertaining while it’s working to shed light on difficult topics. In the times when we are hungry for the message, fiction can make us think.
But in the times when we are tired of messages and want to escape, to go on vacation, we can simply enjoy the story. We can just be whisked off to Oz on a friendly cyclone and go adventuring with a cowardly lion and a hungry tiger.