“Finding Dorothy” by Elizabeth Letts; Ballantine Books; February 2019; 368 pp; $28.00
Review by Ann Jonas
Many of us grew up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” one of the most-viewed films of all time, on television. We are very familiar with Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, the Cowardly Lion and all the other memorable characters from this beloved movie, which was based on the children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1899.
Author Elizabeth Letts, after considerable research, has written “Finding Dorothy,” an absorbing new novel about Baum’s book and the subsequent filming of the motion picture based on his tale.
“Finding Dorothy” has, as its main character, Maud Gage Baum, rather than her husband Frank. Letts states in the book’s afterword that, after researching and reading about L. Frank Baum, she understood why he had created “one of American literature’s most spunky and enduring female characters” in Dorothy: his wife was “a tour de force, completely unlike most Victorian women,” according to Letts.
Certainly, Maud had an interesting life. Her mother was Matilda Joslyn Gage, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and close friend of suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Matilda had fought hard for the right of women to attend college and was proud to send her second daughter, Maud, off to Cornell University in 1880; Maud was one of the first women to attend the Ivy League school. But when Maud returned home for Christmas break, she met her college roommate’s cousin, Frank Baum, who operated a small traveling theater company. By the following November, Maud dropped out of college, married Frank, and joined him in his cross-country touring shows.
Letts writes the Baums’ story by alternating two different time frames. The book switches back and forth from Maud and Frank in the late 1800s to Maud in 1938-1939 when she visits the MGM Studios in Hollywood to make sure everyone involved in the filming of “The Wizard of Oz” stays true to her late husband’s book.
Maud and Frank spend the early years of their marriage on tour (including a show in St. Cloud, Minnesota) and struggle to make ends meet. After the birth of their first child, they quit touring and Frank works at a variety of jobs while their family grows. The Baums settle in Aberdeen, in what is to become South Dakota, and later move to Chicago, where their fourth son is born and where Frank writes the book that would become a children’s classic.
When, in 1938, Maud visits the MGM Studios, she is a spunky 77-year-old and persists until she is allowed on the set. She meets Judy Garland, who is, of course, acting as Dorothy. Maud’s first impression is that Judy is too old to play Dorothy, but she is won over when she hears Judy sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” recognizing a longing that Maud felt as a young woman. Maud sees some mistreatment of Judy and advocates for her.
“Finding Dorothy” is not an exciting, suspenseful novel. It starts out a bit slow, but soon becomes an interesting, engrossing book. Letts blends her two storylines using some creative liberties to fashion a satisfying novel that is based on real facts and events. Readers familiar with “The Wizard of Oz” will especially enjoy the tidbits from the filming of the movie.
Letts has written two works of non-fiction as well as two other novels and a children’s book. She lives in Southern California and Northern Michigan. Her new novel is a fine work of historical fiction.
“Finding Dorothy” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.