“Finding Dorothy” by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy: A Novel

This book was given to me when I made a purchase at an independent bookstore in North Carolina. There was a stack (several feet high) of pre-release volumes from which I was invited to choose. The official publication date is February 12, 2019. My copy is marked Advance Reader’s Edition. Maybe there’s too much competition if you release a book right before Christmas?

The “Dorothy” of this book is the heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who spoke the immortal words “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” The book falls into the genre of fictionalized biography. (I disapprove, in principle…)

Elizabeth Letts begins by introducing Maud Gage Baum as an elderly woman, in 1938, during the months when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by her deceased husband, was being rendered into a movie.

Flashbacks then reveal Maud Baum’s life story, beginning with her arrival at Cornell University in one of the first groups of women permitted to study there.

Many aspect of Maud Gage Baum’s life are distressing. She suffered from the rampant sexism of her day, poor medical care and economic instability. Her mother, Matilda Gage, was a well known suffragist at a time when the vote for women was widely considered a joke.

The book would be depressing, but L Frank Baum was such an engaging, imaginative and kind man that we understand how Maud was able to carry on.

One well developed theme was the Women’s Suffrage movement. Additionally, both Christian Science and spiritualism are touched in passing. Maud Baum lived in interesting times!

What about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Letts describes Frank Baum as a man of vast creativity and optimism. His book is described in Wikipedia as “the first American fairy tale”. What a wonderful accolade! Its popularity was sensational. Children believed every word of it, loved it, read it, dreamed it.

Somehow, I never read the book and never even watched the movie all the way through. But now I feel inspired to do both. I think that makes Letts’s book a wonderful success.

PS: Why have I read two works recently in which a DOLL figures prominently? The Dorothy of Letts’s novel is not a person, but rather the beloved doll owned by Maud Baum’s suffering niece, who is tragically mired in poverty and loneliness. The doll is destroyed and Dorothy is reincarnated as an imaginary friend. Think about the doll in the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. Kind of witchy, right? Can anyone explain to me the end of that long saga, when the doll reappears?

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