Tag Archives: Kansas

“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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“Gilead: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

I was at a party a few weeks ago when a friend sat down and mentioned a book that it made her want to understand GRACE. She was talking theology.

The subject matter stayed with me but unfortunately I forgot the name of the book. Luckily my older son, who reads almost everything, was able to supply it, and I headed for the Library.

Gilead is a really wonderful book. An old minister named John Ames writes to his very young son, whom he knows he will not see grow up. The book starts straightforwardly, but the quiet of the small Iowa town is disturbed by the return of a wayward son, Jack Boughton, a namesake of the protagonist. Jack’s past is disturbing, and the Reverend Ames ponders warning his family against the outsider. The secret the tormented and difficult prodigal eventually reveals is unexpected and terribly painful.

Historically, this book deals with the American heartland, in particular Iowa and Kansas (at its bloodiest). When should Christians go to war? Ames interprets the influenza pandemic of 1918 as a sign from God, and subsequent wars as punishment for ignoring that warning.

This book is quiet and meditative, and lyrically beautiful. There’s no doubt in my mind that it qualifies as “literature”. I know I will read it again.

I read and enjoyed Housekeeping by Ms. Robinson a few years ago. Gilead is even better, and it is part of a trilogy! I look forward to reading the two additional novels and also her essays. I’ll start with the collection entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books.