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British writer travels across Midwest in search of Oz

An appreciation for flying monkeys certainly isn’t limited to the Midwestern mind, but neither of the two new biographies of L. Frank Baum is by a local, which seems like a missed opportunity. Baum’s story is pretty regional: “The Wizard of Oz” is (partially) set in Kansas; Baum spent several years in Aberdeen, S.D.; and Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, Minn. (no, the stolen ruby slippers haven’t turned up yet).

Connecticut writer Evan I. Schwartz reopened the topic in “Finding Oz,” out earlier this year, and Welsh writer Rebecca Loncraine’s new “The Real Wizard of Oz” may be the final word, so thorough and far-reaching is her research. She spent three years in the United States, digging in archives, chasing tornados, and pondering this young country as it was in Baum’s day — somber, frightening, mystical and increasingly dazzling as technology began to take flight.

Loncraine, who read the Oz tales as a child growing up in Wales, makes the case that these stories belong not to us, but to a universal notion of isolation and wishful thinking.

“When I was 12, we moved to a remote hill farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, where, as an only child, I grew up. I think I identified with Dorothy as a farm child, though I was very happy on the farm, unlike poor Dorothy Gale,” she says. In college she studied American literature, where the Oz tales were taught as the first fairy tale to come from the United States. She wanted to know more about Baum, but couldn’t find a book that fully satisfied her curiosity, “so I had to write it myself.”

Her book should satisfy other fans of Oz. Not only does she chronicle his creative activities and family life, but she chronicles the dark and fascinating 19th century that fueled Baum’s imagination, pinpointing moments in his life and the wider culture that made their way into his stories. “One of the darkest themes in Baum’s story, I think, was the high infant mortality rates during his era, in which most people believed in ghosts, and the possibility that the Land of Oz is a kind of heaven for the spirits of dead children. ‘The Wizard of Oz” is a haunted tale,” she notes.

“The other dark issue was the treatment of the Native Americans during Baum’s years in South Dakota, when the terrible massacre at Wounded Knee occurred. This issue seems to be unresolved even today.”

Baum does not come off well during this incident, nor does he impress one with his business sense and spending habits. Much of his output was hack work, cranked out in a panic motivated by bills and contracts. But a couple of his books were heartfelt and full of weird genius, and helped to shape and mythologize America’s popular culture.

“I hope that as a British writer I have brought a fresh eye to Baum’s life and times,” Loncraine says. “Outsiders often notice significant details that people from that place overlook or have become blind to. As an outsider who isn’t expected to know things, you have a kind of license to ask what might seem at first to be silly questions, but can end up bearing rich fruits. I’d be fascinated to know what an American writer would make of my childhood home in Wales.”

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