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Orphans of Oz

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The Orphans of Oz are amazingly numerous; the prevalence, even dominance, of parentless children in the Oz literature has attracted critical attenion.[1] Sometimes the children are plainly called orphans; more often, they live with grandparents or uncles, their natural parents missing and their status unspecified.

Children of Baum

Dorothy Gale is the prime example; famously, she lives with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, and her parents are never mentioned. It is not even clear that Henry and Em are blood relatives. In the 1939 MGM film, Almira Gulch addresses Uncle Henry as "Henry Gale," which implies that he is Dorothy's paternal uncle; but Baum's books are never even that specific. Dorothy is a rare Oz child who has a close and warm relationship with her caregivers.

Ozma might be considered a special case, since she is a fairy and not a mortal human girl. Yet she was born as a baby, lacked parents, and as Tip she-or-he endured a Dickensian childhood that modern standards would define as abusive.

Betsy Bobbin is the extreme example of this trend; no parents or guardians are visible or even mentioned. Betsy springs from Baum's head like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Mayre Griffiths, or Trot, is an interesting case, in that Baum gives her normal parents. Her father, though, is the captain of a sailing ship, gone from home for weeks at a time; and the girl is left in the care of an old sailor, her father's former employer. After an explosion of temper from Trot's mother, the little girl and the old sailor take off for Oz, and apparently never return.

Boys as well as girls conform to this pattern. Ojo lives with Unc Nunkie, no parents in sight.

Button-Bright is something of an exception. He first appears as a lost toddler. He has a "Papa," but does not know the man's name — or his own, for that matter. He has a "mamma" too. Later (in Sky Island), his family appears to be upper-class, judging by his elaborate name. He has an Uncle Bob, and a governess, and a grandfather — or at least, he has his grandfather's umbrella. The existence of this family has no visible constraint upon his choice in moving to Oz. Functionally if not literally, he conforms to the orphan pattern.

Woot the Wanderer is a vagabond child who has "home and friends...but they were so quiet and happy and comfortable that I found them dismally stupid." He seems to have walked away one day and not gone back. At the end of his story he is still wandering. In the real world, children like Woot and Button Bright would be judged to be suffering from significant psychopathology.

Children of Thompson

Ruth Plumly Thompson created two important American child protagonists who go to Oz. Peter Brown, the hero of three of her books, lives with his grandfather in Philadelphia, parents unmentioned. Speedy, the hero of two Thompson books, is an orphan who lives with an uncle on Long Island, New York.

A third American protagonist, Bobby Downs (nicknamed "Bob Up"), is also an orphan. (The Cowardly Lion of Oz)

Tandy, boy hero of Captain Salt in Oz, is definitely an orphan, his royal parents murdered by usurpers. Planetty, the princess from Anuther Planet, comes from a race of beings who have no parents. (The Silver Princess in Oz) In the tiny kingdom of Kimbaloo, the common people consist entirely of children without parents. (The Lost King of Oz)

Later authors

John R. Neill's Jenny Jump, on her first appearance, is fifteen years old, older than other children of the Oz literature. She is doing kitchen work, perhaps as a servant. Yet she too has no visible parents, family, or guardians. (The Wonder City of Oz)

Bucky Jones is seen on his uncle's tugboat; no parents are mentioned, and it is not clear whether that uncle is his caregiver or not. Bucky abandons his prior life for Oz without a glance back. (Lucky Bucky in Oz)

Some later authors are plain and direct on the orphan matter. Robin Brown, in Merry Go Round in Oz, is an orphan and a foster child. Emma Lou, in The Hidden Prince of Oz, is an orphan, as are Barry and Becky, the twins in The Glass Cat of Oz.

Conversely, other later Oz writers give their children a normal pair of parents. This, however, is problematic, since the children disappear from their normal lives for adventures in Oz, and are gone for days at a time. Rachel Cosgrove, in The Hidden Valley of Oz, is a rare author who acknowledges this problem; toward the end of her book she hints that Ozma has been in communication (in some mysterious way) with Jam's parents, to assure them that their son is fine and will be home soon.

Jack Snow, conversely, ignores this parent problem in The Shaggy Man of Oz, in regard to his Twink and Tom. Eric Shanower fills this gap in his short story "Abby," in which he considers what it would have been like for the twins' parents and neighbors if the children had actually disappeared into thin air for a week.

Perhaps this illustrates the real reason for so many orphans: actual families complicate the storytelling. Other writers for children and juveniles have also made their protagonists real or functional orphans, for practical as well as psychological reasons.[2] Critical commentary has noted this habit of children's-book authors, of using death "to dispose of inconvenient parents."[3]

Some Oz books avoid the introduction of new child protagonists. Examples include The Magical Mimics in Oz, The Forbidden Fountain of Oz, The Wicked Witch of Oz, The Giant Garden of Oz, and Paradox in Oz, among others. A few authors have evaded complications by creating native Ozian protagonists. Buddy lives with his Munchkin mother in The Living House of Oz. Septimius Septentrion, in The Ozmapolitan of Oz, is an Ozian teenager with a family.

Dana

Paul Dana gives mature and thoughtful consideration to this question of children and parents in his noteworthy The Lost Boy of Oz. He pictures Trot regularly watching her abandoned mother in the Magic Picture. He makes Button-Bright an orphan, but also gives him a new and more mature respect for family connections. And he creates a remarkable origin for the Phanfasms: they were children who seized all the magic potential of the imagination, by giving up parents, family, and human sympathy. In so doing, they opened themselves up to all the potential cruelty of human nature.

References

  1. Osmond Beckwith, "The Oddness of Oz," Children's Literature, Vol. 5 (1976), pp. 74-91.
  2. Three famous instances are Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, and Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, though there are many more. Gertrude Chandler Warner's four orphans live in a boxcar in The Boxcar Children. Harry Potter is the most prominent recent example of the orphan hero in children's literature.
  3. Peter Hunt, ed., Children's Literature: An Illustrated History, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1995; p. 259.

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