All Four Seasons

Wendy Hornsby

While I admire Henry David Thoreau’s commitment to become one with nature by camping out alongside Walden Pond for a couple of years, I have chosen to experience the changing seasons from a more comfortable vantage point than he in his little hut.

 Until last fall, I had lived nearly all of my life under the temperate weather bubble of coastal Southern California, the last part of it with a white sand beach just beyond my back fence. Though there are seasonal changes in that narrow zone, they are subtle. Days lengthen or grow shorter, the quality of the light changes, birds from other longitudes fly overhead going north or south, the crowds on the beaches come and then go away again, following the rhythms of the school calendar and work schedules more than changes in the weather. The weather stays fairly constant all year.

I have certainly experienced firsthand the worst that seasonal weather can deliver, but always as a tourist. This year, for the first time, I experienced all four seasons, not as a tourist, but as a full-time resident in a place where there is actual weather.

 Just about a year ago I retired from teaching, we sold our house, said goodbye to the beach, friends and the freeways, and moved 500 miles north and east into the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada.


It was fall when we arrived, the landscape ablaze with color. Wild deer and turkeys grazed on the crop of acorns fallen from the native oaks in our new yard. We camped in, as Paul said, for a couple of weeks in a nearly empty house while painters and handymen did some work. Finally, on a cold, rainy day, the moving van showed up. I made a pot of stew and we began unloading boxes.  As the mountain of empty boxes grew, the bare space we moved into became our home.  



We took breaks to explore the area, driving the black highways and the blue, making wonderful discoveries during every outing. This is Gold Rush country, a veritable amusement park for a historian, i.e. me.  And, of course, there are the beautiful Sierra to explore.

 We’re in a drought, and it looked as if the rain and snow season might never happen. But in December the temperature dropped below freezing and we had our first snow.  It wasn’t very much, and it only stayed on the ground for about a week, but it was still magic while it lasted.


This winter was unusually warm, and spring came early. First there was a hint of green in the grass, and then almost overnight there were fields of flowers everywhere we looked. Roadsides carpeted with orange California poppies, blue lupine, and yellow daffodils. Our flower beds were barren when we moved in, and suddenly they were full of color; every week something new emerged. We planted a vegetable garden.

When The Color of Light came out in April, we made our first visit back to Southern California for the book launch. It was wonderful to see old friends, but the traffic was grim, the landscape looked dingy and brown—there is a terrible drought—and we were happy to get home again, to our new home.


At the moment, we are clinging to the end of a beautiful summer. We’ve had several little summer rains—too little—and some very hot days, and we have tanned browner than we should have. But what fun we’re having. Morning laps in the community pool. home to write, evening boat outings on the lake with new friends, visits from old friends.  And more vegetables from our garden than the two of us can eat.

The light has changed, and our second fall is coming.  I’m looking forward to the surprises to come.


by Nancy Means Wright

I’ve never been good at endings. My 1990 divorce after decades of marriage cost me an expensive session with a shrink. Divorce seemed the right ending for me, but was it right for our offspring? Well, I did it, and years later we all hang out together at birthdays and holidays–and our seven grandchildren take their hyphenated names in stride. My former husband and I have grown wiser and happier in our separate ways. It was the right ending.

But what about ending a book? I’ve always told writing students to make the ending resonate in the beginning. You start with the dramatic questions (who had means and motive to kill this person?) And in the end you provide most of the answers. The reader has that thrill of surprise, yet looking back, feels that “oh yes,” this is the “right” ending. You’ve resolved the major conflicts, made your ending as unpredictable as possible, yet left room for imagination and interpretation. You’ve understated rather than overwritten. No hint of  a deus ex machina where the armed police just happen to break into your house and round up the bad guys.

All the same, endings have been a struggle. In Harvest of Bones I spread the guilt among four suspects. And in Stolen Honey, I discovered that my prime suspect was too good/moral a fellow to have killed, so 3/4 through the book I had to choose a new villain and a new ending. Egad!

I recently picked up a 2012 edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms which includes the author’s early drafts, and most fascinating of all, his myriad endings. In the novel, Lt Frederic Henry, like the author himself, is a WWI American driver in the Italian Ambulance Corps. He is seriously wounded, falls in love with a beautiful nurse, gets her pregnant, deserts the army, and the lovers escape to Switzerland. Never was Hemingway happier, he claimed, than when he was “living in the book and making up what happened in it every day.”

But he had a hard time with the ending, in which his Catherine has a Caesarian section. He made 47 different attempts, which his grandson, Sean Hemingway has grouped under nine headings. There is the existential Nada Ending in which woman and baby son both die: “Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”  He wrote a Live Baby Ending in which Catherine dies but the baby lives–then decided “But he does not belong in this story.”

There is the Funeral Ending: “When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about them…in writing you have a certain choice that you do not have in life.”  And then the Morning After Ending in which the bereaved Frederic smells the spring morning after a rain and has a moment “before I realize what it was that had happened…that it was all gone and would not be that way anymore.”

He wrote numerous ending fragments before  he found his “right” ending, using his famous ‘iceberg principle,’ in which 7/8ths of the story is under the surface. Many of us, I’m sure, use this principle, particularly those of us writing historical novels–taking care that our research isn’t obvious. The final ending of A Farewell to Arms illustrates this principle when Catherine begins to hemorrhage, and dies. The novel ends with two nurses refusing him entry, though he pushes past them. “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light, it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” And we can feel Frederic’s pain and total despair.

“Less is more” is the advice I learned from reading Hemingway, and for the most part, have tried to emulate in my fictional endings. My new historical novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, ends with a shipload of returning WWII soldiers. One of the men has a two-year-old daughter by a woman who is crazy in love with him. But she hasn’t yet told him about the child she has brought with her to the ship. I ended the book with  the young man simply “moving slowly towards us as though borne on an incoming wave.”

Should I have described their meeting? I don’t know. But as Hemingway said in one of his endings (above): “Maybe that baby does not belong in this story.”

What’s in a Name? A Lot

“If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” Confucius

When we’re born our parents give us a name which may turn out to have nothing to do with who we are or how we think of ourselves. My first name means “noble” or “illustrious” in German. I don’t think I’m either, but I was given the name simply because it was my father’s name. He was given it because his father served with an Albert in WWI. (For the same reason, I have an uncle named Alvin York.)

When we create fictional characters, though, we have the opportunity—the obligation—to give them “correct” names, names that are in accordance with their truth. That, for me, is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. If I don’t pick the correct name for a character, I can’t make that character believable for myself and, thus, for my readers. I can’t make him/her true.

I once read a cozy mystery by an author whose name I have forgotten. It wasn’t a bad book, but I had trouble getting into it because the main character’s last name was Pigeon. “You created this character out of whole cloth,” I wanted to say to the author. “Why stick her with a name like Pigeon?” Her son was named Tyler but his middle name was Clay. That’s right, Tyler Clay Pigeon.

At least poor Tyler’s a fictional character and doesn’t have to endure the teasing and name-calling that would surely arise from that awful moniker. But real parents do that much and worse to their children. In my lifetime I’ve known women named April Flowers and Crystal Ball. In my files I have a copy of a birth announcement from my local paper. The parents named their daughter Kamrie Georgia-May Dixie KizzieLynn JessieJaymez. That’s all the proof you need that naming a child and alcohol don’t mix. Another recent gem was from the obituary of a woman who named her three daughters Treaser, Faleter, and Rotunda.

I think children should be able to sue parents who inflict such misery on them from the day of their birth. It’s tantamount to child abuse.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive about names because of my last name. Kids can be merciless, so I got “ding-dong” all through elementary school. To make matters worse, I had a nickname, which to this day makes me cringe. When my family moved from South Carolina to Cincinnati when I was eleven, I told my parents I was done with the nickname. I seized the opportunity provided by moving to a place where nobody knew me and nobody had ever heard that damn nickname. If I could have changed my last name, I would have done that too.

The only time I’ve ever revealed the nickname–other than to my wife–was when I wrote a book about that stage of my childhood. You can buy a copy: Strangest thing, though. My high-school girl-friend married someone else in 1964. In 1992 I ran into her and her (second) husband. As we talked, she mentioned her children’s names. She called her younger son by the nickname that I had hated as a child and had dropped long before I ever met her.

When my wife and I adopted our first two children, we thought quite a bit about names. There could be no “B” or “L” sound, and we wanted ones that had two syllables, to counterbalance a monosyllabic surname. We settled on Stephen and then Matthew, who have, of course, been Steve and Matt since they were in elementary school.

When we adopted our girls from Korea, we tried to find English names that had some-thing of the sound of their Korean names and we kept their entire Korean names as their middle names. Our older daughter has long refused to use anything but her middle initial. She doesn’t like the way her Korean middle name makes her stand out on paper. The younger daughter recently married a nice fellow whose family is from Mexico, so she is now the Korean girl with the Hispanic name who lives in a little Dutch town, a one-woman testament to cultural diversity. She gave her son (from her first marriage) a Korean middle name.

For a contemporary mystery which I wrote several years ago, Death Goes Dutch, I wanted to make the main character a Korean adoptee living in the Dutch environs of west Michigan. DeGraaf is a common name here, not quite Smith or Jones but common. I’ve always liked Sarah and Rachel as women’s names, but Sarah Bell and Rachel Bell don’t work. They remind me of Clarabell and Pachelbel. But I had a chance to use one of those names in the novel, so Sarah DeGraaf was born. I decided to name characters in the book after members of my extended family—aunts, cousins, and their children. The villain, of course, was not named after a relative. You can find the book here:

Whatever name an author chooses for a character, there is bound to be at least one person somewhere with that name. You’ve seen, I’m sure, the Taco Bell commercial featuring four men named Ronald McDonald. A librarian told me she knew at least four women named Sarah DeGraaf. I thought that might mean at least four sales. Some fictional names become iconic—Harry Potter perhaps being the most obvious. In my files I have a class list from some years ago containing the name “Potter, Harry.” Yes, I was one of Harry Potter’s teachers. I ran into him in an airport a few years ago. He is now a Catholic priest. I wonder how people who don’t know him respond when they find a voice mail that begins, “Hi, this is Harry Potter.”

Writing Roman mysteries using some historical characters relieves me of part of the onus of choosing names. Pliny’s name, after his adoption by his uncle, was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. (Caecilius was his father’s name.) There’s nothing I can do about that. Tacitus was Cornelius Tacitus, although we don’t know his first name; it might have been Publius. A typical Roman man’s name had three parts, but over time extra names (cognomina—nicknames) came to be added. One minor character in Death in the Ashes was Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (try putting that on a name tag at the class reunion). Pliny’s mother was named Plinia (sister of Pliny the Elder) and Tacitus’ wife was Julia (daughter of Gaius Julius Agricola). Women of the citizen class in Rome were always given the feminine form of their father’s family name and sometimes had a second name taken from another male relative, perhaps a grandfather.

Pliny writes several letters to his mother-in-law, whose name was Pompeia Celerina. He mentions her more times than he does his own mother, whom he never names. Pompeia’s father and any brothers would be named Pompeius. But Pliny never mentions his wife’s name or the name of Pompeia’s husband, presumably dead by the time Pliny was writing. So I had to (got to?) pick a name for this otherwise anonymous wife. The commentaries on Pliny’s letters were no help in identifying his wife’s father, so I felt free to settle on “Livia” as her name. To me it has a somewhat imperious, arrogant ring to it, probably because the emperor Augustus’ wife was named Livia, and she was a piece of work. The name is in accordance with the truth of my character.

Where I have the greatest problem is in naming minor characters, especially servants, inn-keepers, merchants. Many of those people were non-Roman. Servants were often named/renamed after mythological characters whom they were thought to resemble. One of my characters is a Jewish slave named Jacob whom his master renames Nestor, after the wise old counselor in Homer’s Iliad. I have been known to change the names of such characters two or three times as I rewrite, much to the consternation of my writers’ group. The lists of characters that appear in my Pliny novels are helpful to me because they let me quickly determine if I have used a certain name before. (Of course, if I kept extensive lists and notes as I went along, I wouldn’t have that problem, but I don’t.)

My favorite character’s name is Aurora. She has snuck up on me, appearing briefly in the second Pliny book and taking a larger role in each succeeding book, until now she’s taken over the title of the newest book, The Eyes of Aurora, due out on September 9:
Writers’ magazines suggest several ways to pick names for characters and issue cautions about how naming can go wrong. The advice can be applied to naming children as well. One list summed it up this way: “Think it through.” Say it out loud, consider how it could be misconstrued (don’t name a character Stan Dupp or Clay Pigeon or Crystal Ball), and think about the image it creates in your own mind. Is that the image you want in your reader’s mind? Do you want your reader to chuckle every time the character’s name comes up? To go back to Confucius, is your character’s name in accordance with the truth of things, the truth of who your character is?

Historical Mysteries – Double Trouble

Writing mysteries is difficult. They are both plot and character driven. Writing historical mysteries, especially when you include real historical persons, is twice or three times as hard (in my humble opinion). Why? Because you still have to have a well-plotted mystery, but you have the added burden of portraying real people about whom your reader may already have formed an opinion. And that’s not to mention creating a world true to its history, that also fits your story. None of that is easy.

Let’s look at a well known figure, a mythic figure. Take Abraham Lincoln. You want to write a mystery, say about a Confederate spy, set in the Civil War White House (Executive Mansion) where Lincoln uses the Taft children, who play with Willie and Tad, as his Baker Street Irregulars to ferret out the mole. There have been, literally, millions of words written about our 16th president, and, as a result, your research has to be spot on. You’ll find yourself studying Civil War photographs of the White House and Washington. You’ll pore over his correspondence, just to get his speech patterns down for the dialogue. My second published mystery was set in 1922 Paris, among the American expatriate community. I studied the letters that Hemingway wrote during those years specifically so that I would know how he talked, what words he used. A book on Lincoln would need the same amount of care. Oh, and don’t get the mole on his face on the wrong side. Somebody will call you out on it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, someone like Lincoln is so well-documented that there are few questions left about how he looked and sounded, his moods and manners. But even when you have Lincoln right, you then have to get the White House and environs correct. And you have to get the plot nailed down tight. When you look at it in total, it seems like an impossible task. Wouldn’t it be fun though?

Fans of historical novels of any type read for two reasons. One, they want to be entertained. Second, they want to learn something about another time and place. But that just makes it more likely that they will already know something of that era. And the slightest mistake can, potentially, cost you readers. And it can happen in more modern settings as well. Not long ago, I read a contemporary thriller by a bestselling author. He has his hero jet into Kuwait, hop over to the Holiday Inn, and immediately order a vodka martini in one of the restaurants. Anyone with even a remote understanding of Kuwait knows that you haven’t been able to order alcohol in a restaurant there since the 1970s. The author didn’t do the necessary research. The general editor didn’t catch it. The copy editor didn’t catch it. But I know of at least one reader that very nearly stopped reading and put the book down over that one incident – me. I saw another such novel just a few months ago that had the CIA station chief and the regional security officer at the US Embassy in Qatar sharing office space and acting as partners. The author obviously knew nothing about how these things work. Such a situation would never happen.

You can move things around a bit; sometimes you have to for the sake of your story. In one famous example, Gore Vidal, in his book Burr, kept one historical figure alive for a year after his actual date of death. But Vidal did what all writers of historical novels must do. He explained why he had done that in an “Author’s Note” at the end. Readers are willing to allow you the occasional inaccuracy as long as you tell them why it was necessary. That way, they know that it wasn’t poor research that caused it. And, most of the time, they will accept it.

Along that same line, your characters’ thoughts and actions must fit your setting. Anachronisms, like the clock tolling midnight in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, will cause readers to take you to task. I hear a great deal these days about characters in mysteries set, say, during the Victorian period and elsewhere having very 21st century attitudes and beliefs. This will, without question, cause an author problems with a segment of the reading public. Of course, there is another block that doesn’t mind.

With historical mysteries, it isn’t just about getting the general time and place correct. You have to know how murders were handled. If it is in the Dark Ages, then you may have to create a plausible excuse for why your amateur sleuth is an amateur sleuth. In some places, like Britain, there was nothing even remotely like a police force. If it is after a formal police presence came into existence, you have to know how such things were handled by the police in that particular time and place. Which means that your book has become not only an historical mystery but a kind of procedural as well.

Historical mysteries are double, maybe even triple trouble. But when you get it right, it’s all the more satisfying.

Tastes of a Maine Summer

DSC01256Lea Wait, here, thrilled that it is finally summer in Maine. Not that the other seasons aren’t special here along the coast … but summer is different.

It’s the only time of the year out-of-state license plates outnumber those proclaiming “Vacationland.” It’s the time when the motel up the road from me is a little embarrassed its permanent sign reads “Now! Heated Units!” It’s the month when back-to-schoolers swarm through the outlets in Freeport and the Staples in Brunswick.

And it’s the busiest time of the year for farmers’ markets.

Home-made cheeses, eggrolls and cinnamon rolls are as available there as blueberries, zucchini, and tomatoes. And “free range eggs,” of course. This year my husband is usually the one patronizing the local markets since I’m trying to make a September 1 manuscript deadline (THREADSLea's Mussels OF EVIDENCE) and prepare for a September 6 publication date (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS). But he brings the market home to me.

This is the time of year for some of my favorites:  fried summer squash. Mussels in herbed wine. Scalloped tomatoes. Blueberry pie, cake, pancakes, and muffins. Just-picked sweet corn. (Simmering the cobs and leaves results in a fantastic broth that will be the basis for corn chowder later on.) Lobster, of course. My current favorite way to eat it is in a lobster club sandwich with crisp bacon and fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Yum! (Lobster broth is also simmered and used later for haddock chowder.)

My husband, who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, makes hummus. We nibble it, along with Hahn’s End cheeses, on our porch overlooking the river. He indulges in wine or Scotch. I’m limited to lemonade for a while …. with deadlines approaching, I’ll go back to writing or editing after dinner. Dinner itself? Perhaps panko-fried haddock. Sliced tomatoes. Cole slaw made from young cabbage and carrots. That sweet corn. For dessert? Locally made ice cream with berries to top it if we feel in the mood to indulge.

Or perhaps just steamed mussels with French bread to dunk in the wine and herb and butter broth. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many mussels we can consume at one meal. Like the local oysters and clams available this time of year, they taste of the sea.

They taste of summer.DSC01253




What’s Real and What’s Not?

A former student recently asked me if I’d ever killed a student in one of my Nick Hoffman mysteries.  I told him not yet. He, of course, had his own candidates from one of the courses he was in: students who complained about too much reading.

I thought of his question the other day when a friend at the gym told me he’d just read my mystery Hot Rocks, set at an upscale health club like the one we were standing in, and he said with his face aglow, “Where’s the line between truth and fiction?”  He had loved the book and was eager to know.

I told him about the starting place.  My fictional town is Michiganapolis, a blend of the state capitol Lansing and the home of Michigan State University, East Lansing.  My town is Michigan’s State capitol and the seat of the “State University of Michigan,” and while there might be some geographical similarities, I don’t have to stick to any actual street maps.  Nobody will ever be able to confront me and say my sleuth Nick Hoffman couldn’t have made a right turn on a certain street or gotten from one part of town to another in whatever amount of time I chose.

“If it were really Lansing or East Lansing, I’d be stuck to the facts and that would bore me.  This way, the world is all mine.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not doing world building.  It’s not Westeros in Game of Thrones.  There aren’t any White Walkers.”  And then I thought of some of my vicious administrators and faculty members and said, “Well…”

“But what about the people?”  He was sure he recognized some of the characters in the book, a lot of which takes place in the club.

Here again fiction overruled fact.  I took an already lush health club and made it even more  sybaritic, giving it a different name, layout and colors.  And all the people who appear in it are truly fictional.  Writers are magpies, I explained.  So bits and pieces of people I know and have observed show up in my fiction, but nobody in any book is a one-to-one transfer from reality to fiction.  That wouldn’t be interesting to me.  The fun’s in the transformation.

Nick Hoffman loves to cook, and my friend said that when he was reading the book, he thought, “I want to have dinner at Lev’s house!”

I smiled. “Sorry to disappoint you.  I tend to keep things simple.  And sometimes I just order pizza, because, you know, I’m real, and my sleuth is fictional.”

Lev Raphael’s 8th Nick Hoffman book Assault With a Deadly Lie is now available on Amazon.




Note: This essay first appeared in the magazine Black Lamb.

It’s a common belief that if you have read the book first, and if you loved the book, you’ll be disappointed by the movie. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve found I agree with the cliché nearly always.

I read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz before I saw the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz.” It was the first book-length book I ever read by myself, and I have reread it many times, at least once for every decade of my life, every time discovering new truths. I have seen the movie several times too, and I am brave enough to say aloud that every time I’ve seen the movie I’ve been disappointed.

It is not the purpose of this essay to trash one of America’s cherished treasures. Yes, “The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderful movie, the Wonderful Movie of Oz. Because, because, because, because the music is great; the special effects were stunning for their time and still hold up; the joy and hope expressed were an antidote to the Depression-Era doldrums; and of course there’s Judy Garland, who deserves her tenure in American hagiography. Believe me, I like the movie. But it ain’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Land of Oz, and it falls short of the book.

The movie’s factual errors and the trivializing of the story don’t bother most people. Well, most people haven’t read the novel, or have read the book only once, a long, long time ago, and have seen the movie dozens of times since. For a while I belonged to the International Wizard of Oz Club and subscribed to the Baum Bugle, but I quit when I realized that the members of the club were just as interested in the MGM movie memorabilia (e.g. the non-canonical Ruby Slippers) as they were in the history, politics, economics, values, and theology of the written Oz. Honestly, I don’t denigrate those fans. All the more joy and color for them, and I confess that one of my favorite novels, Geoff Ryman’s Was, celebrates both the book and the film equally. (It’s a brilliant novel, with startling things to say about mental illness, child abuse, AIDS, the childhood of Judy Garland, the dotage of Dorothy Gael [sic], the Kansas prairie, the desolation of Southern California, and much, much more.)

Okay, so who cares, and they’re split hairs, but let’s get the short list out there, just in case somebody ever decides to do a new movie version of the novel. After all, much more is possible nowadays in the realm of special effects, and Hollywood has a nothing-sacred attitude towards remakes. Anyway, if you are a filmmaker, and you decide to refilm “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” please take note:

Dorothy is young. Her age isn’t stated in the book, but judging by her unsophisticated wisdom, by the number of times she breaks into tears, and by the Denslow illustrations, she’s clearly pre-pubescent, not in the midst of adolescence and trying without success to make the least of her bust.

Silver Shoes, not Ruby Slippers, please.

Our homeless, brainless, heartless, and spineless (not, not, not, and not) foursome are rescued from the poppy field not by a snowfall but by a nation of stout-hearted field mice.

The Emerald City is—or appears—monochromatic: all green.

The Wizard demands that our foursome kill the Wicked Witch of the West, not merely bring back her broom.

The Witch doesn’t even have a broom, as far as we know, and she’s not tall, and please, she’s not green. She has only one eye, but it has the power of a telescope. There’s no hourglass. (I should mention another favorite novel of mine, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, in which he borrows liberally from both the movie and the book. In his tale, the broom is important, the witch has two eyes, and her complexion is quite green. I recommend Maguire’s book highly, for it justly dumps on the “wonderful” Wizard.)

When the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes good on his promises, he doesn’t just hand out certificates, testimonials, or medals. He gives real (fake) brains, heart, and courage. The brains are made of sawdust, pins and needles; the heart is a silk sack stuffed with sawdust; the courage is a bowl of patent medicine, probably alcoholic. The crafty con man knows what he’s doing: “Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?’”

One more thing. Dorothy, young though she may be, and at times a crybaby, is for the most part a take-charge mensch. She doesn’t whimper or wring her hands; she acts. She’s the decision-maker of the questers. And she has a temper. She bops the Lion on the nose, she tells off the Wizard, and as for killing the Witch, it’s no accident. In the midst of a fierce argument over the ownership of the Silver Shoes, Dorothy loses her cool, picks up a bucket of water, and douses the bitch. Serves her right. Dorothy apologizes as she watches the witch melt like brown sugar, but once the Witch is just a mess on the floor, Dorothy throws another bucket of water on the puddle, sweeps the mess out the door, reclaims her stolen shoe, and gets on with her life.

There is a lot more to get on with in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because at the point the Witch gets washed away, the book’s only halfway finished. There are other adventures in the novel, both before and after midpoint, which were dropped by the movie. I’ll mention some of them below.

Right now, though, I want to talk about the irony in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Irony puts the wonder in “wonderful,” a word left out of the movie’s title. Irony is what makes the book both funny and wise. Check out this exchange between the Scarecrow and Dorothy, in which he challenges the premise of her quest:

“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.

Throughout the story, adventure after adventure, the “brainless” Scarecrow is the problem-solver. He figures out how the companions can get across an impassible ditch. He outwits the Kalidahs, who are fearsome beasts combining the features of tigers and bears (Oh, my!). Of course he never needed brains to begin with, but he feels all the brainier after his head is stuffed with sawdust, pins, and needles. The citizens of Oz accept this change and proudly declare, “There is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” Talk about irony.

The Tin Woodman (and by the way, his name is not “The Tin Man,” and his limbs are as thin as pipes) is a master builder and he keeps his axe sharp enough to chop off the heads of wolves, though it saddens him to have to kill. He is so sentimental that when he steps on a beetle he weeps and rusts himself stiff. This man has heart. As for the kind of heart it takes to love a woman, he never lost that while he was lopping off his body parts and replacing them with tin fixtures; in that way he had more heart than was good for him. (The back story on that would make a fine movie in itself. The story of Nick Chopper.) The Wizard, that old cynic, probably knows from bitter experience that too much heart is not a good thing: “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.” More irony.

And the Cowardly Lion? Well, for one thing, he’s big—a lot bigger than Dorothy, which makes him bigger than your average Munchkin. He is to be taken seriously, not laughed at like some retired vaudeville comedian. And although he, like his companions, has a fierce inferiority complex, he also has a fierce roar. Whenever bravery is called for, the Cowardly Lion’s your man. He leaps over the impassible ditch time and again to carry his friends to safety. He stands up to the Kalidahs and the Hammerheads, and he slays the giant spider who is tyrannizing the beasts of the forest. When he’s held captive by the Wicked Witch, he roars and rushes at her every time she comes near him, and he steadfastly refuses to be her slave, under penalty of death. This is no coward, this Lion.

Scholars more learned than I have talked about the “hidden meanings” of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with theories about the Gold Standard, political struggles between agriculture and mineral rights, the pros and cons of industrialization, and so on; but the irony of religion in this tale (like the irony of religion in general) deserves more attention. Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story of a quest for the Eternal/Emerald City, the residence of God, at the end of the Straight and Narrow Path/Yellow Brick Road. In this case God is a total phony, whose only claim to divinity is that he’s fooled an entire population, and in the process has exploited their natural resources for his own coffers. In order to keep his subjects’ faith alive, he never shows himself before them, and he forces all the citizens of the city to wear green (“rose-colored,” if roses were green) glasses permanently and constantly.

I shall close by retelling a self-contained chapter toward the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, titled “The Dainty China Country.” Our four companions are on their way to the Land of the Quadlings, to ask Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, to help Dorothy return to her gray aunt and gray uncle in their gray house on the gray prairie in the gray land of Kansas. They are stopped by a wall made of white china. The Tin Woodman builds a ladder, and they climb over the wall, all four of them, and come down into a land made entirely of colorfully painted china: china barns, china houses, china people, china trees, and china livestock. They’re like porcelain toys, waist-high to a Munchkin. The newcomers cause a commotion, during which a cow’s leg is broken off and a milkmaid’s elbow is chipped. Dorothy is delighted by the quaint, dainty people and wants to take a China Princess home with her and set her on the mantle-shelf. Fortunately Dorothy is persuaded to give that idea up, and the four friends continue south to the other side of the Dainty China Country, where they are stopped by another china wall. One by one they climb up on the Cowardly Lion’s back and pull themselves over the wall. When it’s time for the Lion to leave, he leaps to the top of the wall, and as he does, he accidentally swats a china church with his tail and smashes it to pieces. Collateral damage.

So much for America’s well-meaning but clumsy and acquisitive foreign policy at the beginning of our age of imperialism. Collateral damage is, in itself, always a cruel irony.

For these and other reasons, but especially because of its irony, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, is my choice for the Great American Novel of the Twentieth Century. It made me think when my mother first read it to me when I was five. It made me think when I read it to myself at the age of six. It has made me think, and laugh, and sometimes even weep, with every reading since.

Oh. One major error I forgot to mention above, in my list of corrections for the remake of the movie. The Land of Oz is a real place, or as real a place as any fictional land can be. It may be a goofy place, a place landlocked by impassable deserts, where the grownups are as small as children and where they speak English, as do half the animals, where scarecrows think and metal men cry, where monkeys fly and lions lie down with terriers, but it’s real. It’s not “over the rainbow,” and for Ozma’s sake, it’s not a dream.




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