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Finding Dorothy

Review

Finding Dorothy

Published at the turn of the century in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ seems like a book that has always existed, separate from an author or publishing process and connected only to its readers. When the iconic movie adaptation released in 1939, it too remained a classic, and many viewers fell in love with Dorothy, Toto and the yellow brick road without ever realizing that the story was born in the pages of a book. In her engrossing and illuminating novel, FINDING DOROTHY, author Elizabeth Letts turns the table to focus not only on the man behind Oz, but also on the woman behind him and her role in bringing Dorothy to life on the big screen.

When we meet Maud Baum, she is in her 70s and long widowed by her husband, Frank. She recently has learned that the film rights to his most popular work, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, have been purchased by MGM Studios. When she finds out that MGM has cast Judy Garland as Dorothy, she is reminded of a promise she made to her late husband to always take care of Dorothy, and vows to find a way onto the set to make sure that his vision is brought to life. She does just that, giving her a chance to hear the first version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” see the actors cast as the Munchkins, and watch with great concern as Judy is stifled, oppressed and abused by the men around her. From then on, she knows it is not only her job to protect her husband’s work, but also to watch over the young actress.

"Maud’s storyline is every bit as compelling as its Hollywood counterpart, and Letts does a brilliant job of bringing her characters to life, connecting the dots between fact and fiction, and illuminating the power of women to protect and celebrate one another."

Told in alternating timelines, FINDING DOROTHY details both the love story between Maud Gage and L. Frank Baum and how Judy Garland made her dazzling portrayal of Dorothy come to life. In a parallel narrative to the Hollywood storyline, we meet a young Maud, daughter to Matilda, an ardent suffragette with pointed views and a no-nonsense demeanor (for reference, Matilda was a contemporary and dear friend of Susan B. Anthony). Although Maud is a bit of a tomboy, she still suffers under the weight of her mother’s expectations and refusal to fly under the radar. This baggage is truly highlighted when Maud joins the coed class at Cornell, where she is one of 20 or so women who learn, eat and socialize amongst college boys --- all while bearing their rude remarks, fragile egos and drunken fraternizing. Maud feels as though she may never find the freedom she desires until she meets Frank, her roommate’s cousin, a bright and captivating young man who acts in, writes and directs theater productions.

As an elderly Maud reflects and reminisces on her life with Frank, Letts draws numerous parallels to her life as a rebellious young woman and the various indiscretions she observes on the set. Knowing the actress’s fate, readers will feel 16-year-old Judy’s pain as she is forced into a strict diet, flirted with by older men and generally ignored as a real person. Letts brings the set to life; Maud’s interactions with costume designers, directors and actors remind us all that The Wizard of Oz was truly cutting-edge for its time, and the amount of work that went into it was staggering. Fun fact: Dorothy’s famous shoes were originally meant to be silver, but the producers worried that silver would not look good on film. Now it is hard to imagine an Oz without ruby slippers.

Tales of old Hollywood are always dazzlingly captivating, and there is something scandalous about reading about young Judy before the drug addictions and tabloid rumors, but for me the true star of FINDING DOROTHY was Maud. Letts writes such a complex and dedicated portrait of this forgotten woman, and her struggle between wanting to learn and be independent and her desire to break away from her mother’s notoriety positively leaps off the page. Later, when she and Frank are married and struggling to get by, they find themselves in South Dakota, and I loved learning about Frank’s life before his writing took off. Even more fun was seeing which tiny, seemingly unimportant elements of Maud and Frank’s life later found their way into his Oz books. In one scene, for example, Frank delights some children by telling a story about a woodcutter who is so clumsy that he has to keep getting body parts made of tin. His point in relating this story is the usefulness of his family’s oil company, but it is easy to see the gears turning for the character of the Tin Man.

It is worth noting that FINDING DOROTHY is definitely a work of fiction. Maud did meet Judy, but it is unlikely that she had such a strong role in the girl’s life. And while an early scene has her saving the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from being cut, that seems implausible. What is true, though, is Frank’s dedication to women’s rights, something that will likely please modern readers. In fact, upon reflection, I can now see that Dorothy herself was a much more strong-willed, feminist character than I ever realized when watching the movie or reading the books as a child. Though his views were no doubt bolstered by his wife and her suffragette mother, Letts also shows us the ways that Frank himself championed women’s rights and how his work informed his writing.

A delightful look behind the scenes, FINDING DOROTHY is a book full of magic, and a wonderful tribute to the beloved books and movie that we now consider American classics. Maud’s storyline is every bit as compelling as its Hollywood counterpart, and Letts does a brilliant job of bringing her characters to life, connecting the dots between fact and fiction, and illuminating the power of women to protect and celebrate one another.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 15, 2019

Finding Dorothy
by Elizabeth Letts

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525622101
  • ISBN-13: 9780525622109