Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and consequently the Wizard of Oz film, is a rare entity: a story whose characters, settings, and adventures just exude magic. From childhood, the story of Dorothy and her strange companions has been a warm source of comfort and enchantment for me. And yet, I find I know very little about the man whose imagination brought this story to the world, L. Frank Baum. On that note, Elizabeth Letts’ Finding Dorothy is not the story of Oz’s author, but rather the wife and friend who saw firsthand the life that inspired Dorothy’s magical journey over the rainbow.

Finding Dorothy book cover

In 1939, Maud Gage, the widow of author L. Frank Baum, becomes a consultant for MGM Studios during the filming of The Wizard of Oz. Several years prior, Maud promised her husband that she would take care of Dorothy, and after meeting a shy but talented girl named Judy Garland, it seems Maud’s promise is kept. But Judy’s glamorous world has a lecherous undertone of drugs, abuse, and loneliness, and Maud, having found her beloved Dorothy, tries to look out for her. This draws Maud back through her life with her husband, and the beautiful, eternal world that it inspired…

The structure of this story is quite familiar: a person connected very deeply to a fictional world has to deal with Hollywood stuffed shirts changing the material to suit the silver screen, while the occasional flashback shows what inspired this fictional world. Maud’s story is compelling not just because we can see plainly which parts wound up in Oz, but also because Maud and the rest of the characters feel so real.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of L. Frank Baum’s character, but I adored his enthusiasm and curiosity. His boundless energy proves to be both frustrating and enchanting to Maud, but I love characters like that: whose zest for new ideas and imagination carry them through life. He certainly would have been an interesting person to engage in conversation with.

On the other hand, if Frank has his head in the clouds, then Maud has her head firmly on the ground. Don’t worry: this isn’t one of those stories where the stuffy traditional girl has to learn from the flighty dreamer. Maud adores Frank for all that he is, and their camaraderie, through the highs and lows, is strong and true.

If I adore Frank’s wide-eyed wonder and curiosity, then I love Maud’s kindness and strength. The daughter of suffragette Matilda Gage, Maud has a core of steel, but she is also tender and loving. We see her raise four boys and look after a real little girl who would become Dorothy’s inspiration. These qualities especially shine during Maud’s encounters with Judy Garland.

Although I’ll always love the Wizard of Oz film, some behind-the-scenes stories involving Judy Garland put a slight scrim of grime over it. Maud plays witness to several of those stories; the studio sees Judy as a rising star to be molded, but Maud sees a lonely girl who just needs a friend. Although Judy is a tough girl, you just want to reach into the book and give the dear girl a hug.

Speaking of, I dusted off my old Wizard of Oz DVD while reading this book and, for the first time in my hundreds of viewings of this movie, I cried at “Over the Rainbow.” The book describes the first time that Maud—or anyone, for that matter—hears Judy Garland sing that song, and…guys, there’s a reason that song moves us so much. You’ll just have to read the book for yourself to see what I mean.

I also just find it funny to consider other fantasy writers: J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and so on. So many facts about these groundbreaking authors’ lives are common knowledge, and yet no one talks about the author of the quintessential American fairy tale. And even fewer people know about the woman whose life inspired that fairy tale. Even if you aren’t the hugest Wizard of Oz fan, the story of Maud Baum and her dear husband’s most famous work will still move you in some way. Every story has a story of its own, and this one deserves to be heard.

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