In 1921 she was named the new Royal Historian of Oz by Baum’s publishers and Ruth Plumly Thompson picked up where Frank L. Baum left off. The difference in authors is not too apparent at first glance. Thompson is much funnier than Baum. She expands the world of Oz, highlights histories of how characters like the Patchwork girl, Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik-Tok came to exist and she writes only for children, while Baum’s books were the ‘cross-over’ books of the day, appealing to both children and adults. Over the years there will be more than one writer who will take Oz and transform it, but Ms. Thompson is the only one I really like. Perhaps it’s the fact that she lived in the same era as Baum, and therefore her vision seems more in touch with his.
There are a few things typical of Thompson. One is her blending of two separate adventures that come together in the end. The second adventure usually revolves around Dorothy, now a Princess of Oz, whom we usually find traveling with Toto or someone else, and headed back to the Emerald City or on her way to visit the Tin Man. Suddenly, she gets swept off course by whatever magical thing she happens to cross paths with. Thompson follows Dorothy and the other characters stories chapter by chapter until she brings them together in a final climactic scene.
Another typical plot line of Thompson’s is her inclusion of a character from the good ol’ U.S. of A. If it isn’t the main character, then it is a strong supporting character. This character will be given the choice at the end of the story, to remain in Oz or return to America. What they decide is based on who or what they are. In this case, the American character is Bill, the iron weather cock who has magically come to life after being zapped by an electric wire and then blown to Oz in a storm.
Grampa in Oz is one of my favorites of the Thompson series. (and yes it does have a weird spelling, but that’s how its spelled) I love Grampa, the crusty old soldier, the handsome and somewhat naive Prince Tatters, the iron bird who goes and comes and sometimes falls by the name of Bill, and most of all, the enchanted girl named Urtha,(named so because she is ‘made of earth’) who is entirely made of flowers.
The whole thing begins when a terrific storm sweeps into the tiny and destitute Kingdom of Ragbad (located in the southeast corner of Oz) and the King’s head is blown off in the gale. Deciding it is high time for an adventure, and also high time Prince Tatters finds a wife, Grampa and Tatters set off to find ‘a fortune, the King’s head, and a Princess’ but not necessarily in that order.
The two adventurers become three when they meet Bill, then four when they discover Urtha. Although we can see that Tatters in instantly in love with Urtha, Grampa nor Bill are so perceiving and the adventure for the fortune, the princess and the King’s head continues.
Meanwhile, Dorothy has followed her little dog Toto off the path and lost her way. She meets Percy Veer, the forgetful poet of Perhaps City, and learns he’s seeking his King’s daughter, who has been stolen by a wicked magician. The two set off to find the Emerald City and ask Ozma for her help in locating the princess.
What I love about Ruth Plumly Thompson is her brilliant imagination. Her towns and characters are wonderful. From underground pits of fire where fire flowers grow and the residents make firecrackers to eat, to pink clouds in the sky, where the Shepherdess tends the baby stars and keeps them from falling out of the Milky Way, Thompson’s imagination is much more delicate and fanciful than Baum’s. In her books there is no real death and romance is always the order of the day.
I’m not saying one author is better than the other, but here lies the difference and I know which appealed to my feminine mind when I was ten or eleven.
In Grampa of Oz, the adventurers find themselves captured by bandits in the Blue Forest, escaping down a hollow tree to a Wizard’s underground garden where they find Urtha and bring her to life, and then escaping that to find themselves trapped the Fire Island of Prince Forge John. They find a magic potion that saves them from disaster again and again. It keeps them from burning up in the lava of a volcano and freezing to death on an island covered in ice.
Dorothy and the Forgetful Poet end up stuck on Monday Mountain (where every day is wash day) and begin to plot their escape, as Grampa and the others encounter a storm that lifts them via umbrella up into the clouds where a Sky Shepherdess directs them to the King’s head (because a lot of people go about with their heads in the clouds). Finally, they meet the mysterious Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter, who will get them back to earth.
In the end, everything turns out all right, with Dorothy and the Forgetful Poet meeting up with Grampa and his company, and the two sharing adventures. In the climactic scene, Tatters finds himself a princess and the wicked magician is revealed and properly punished.
I do have to say, that the one thing that always annoyed me about these books is Ozma. She is always depicted as this royal ruler who does very little except show up towards the end of the book, suddenly worried that she hasn’t seen her friend Dorothy in a week. She goes to her Magic Picture – which can show you anything you want to see – and sees that Dorothy is possibly in trouble, but instead of using her Magic Belt- which is a kind of teleportation/wishing device- to rescue her friend, Ozma just waits and watches for the right moment to step in and either save the day, or bring them all to the Emerald City and solve the puzzle.
This has always bothered me as too easy, a bit too queen-like, and kind of boring in the sense that Ozma is supposed to be this all-powerful ruler who doesn’t do anything but step in at the last minute. Even then, she doesn’t really save anyone or contribute, she just hangs around her palace, absorbed in pressing ‘state’ matters, and then gets a cameo in the end. She doesn’t even really deserve a cameo, when she didn’t really do anything to move the story along. Her character is flat and contrived; a plot-saver only. And other than that, she serves no real purpose.
If you pick up the 1980’s version of the books, there are detailed maps included covering all four sections of the Marvelous Land of Oz with the Emerald City at its heart. Turn the page and there are further maps of The Magical Countries Surrounding Oz. I used to pore over these maps and select my favorite places, hoping there would be a story about it someday.
I have so many favorite parts in Grampa of Oz that it is difficult to select just one, but here is a brief passage from the meeting with Bill. Bill is one of the best characters in the story. He’s a trifle Alice in Wonderlandish with his odd questions and one-track mind, but he’s also a forceful personality and a most diverting creation. I think it shows Thompson’s style of humor very well with its clever wordplay and vivid imagery. (Noting the inconsistency of being able to kill ones supper in a country where no one ever dies)
There was a sharp crash as the bullet struck home, then down fell a large reddish fowl.
“Well?” the fowl rasped sulkily, as Prince Tatters and Grampa ran forward, “What am I supposed to do now? I’ve never been shot before.”
“A bird that’s shot is not supposed to do anything,” said the old soldier severely.
“Oh,” sighed the bird, “That’s easy!” and putting down it’s head, it lay quietly on it’s side.
“It’s a rooster!” exclaimed the Prince, touching it with one hand. “An iron rooster!” At this the bird sprang up indignantly.
“You may shoot me if you want, but I’ll not lie here and let you call me names,” it shrilled angrily. “Where are your eyes? Can’t you see I’m a weather cock?”
“Do you suppose I’d have wasted a good bullet on you if I had? I may have an iron constitution but I don’t eat cast iron birds,” sniffed Grampa. “What do you mean, flying through this forest and deceiving hungry travellers?”
“I don’t know what I mean,” replied the weather cock calmly, “for I’ve only been alive since last night. What do you mean yourself, pray? Must everyone have meaning like a riddle?”
Grampa stroked his whiskers thoughtfully over this remark.
“But how did you come to be alive?” asked the Prince, leaning on his red umbrella and regarding the bird with deep interest – for even in Oz weather cocks usually stick to their poles.
“There was a storm,” explained the cock, lifting one claw,”lightning, thunder, wind and rain. One minute I was whirling around on the top of my barn and the next minute I was spinning through space. Then all at once I came in contact with a live wire,, there was a flash, I was charged with a strange force and to my infinite amazement I found that my wings would work and that I could crow. So I crew and flew and flew and crew, till I fell exhausted into this forest.”
“Humph!” grunted Grampa.”A likely story. In the first place there are no live wires in Oz and – ”
“Oz!” screeched the weather cock.”I didn’t say Oz. I was on a barn near Chicago when the storm broke. Have you never heard of Chicago, you odd looking, old creature?”
“Never,” answered Grampa emphatically, “but wherever you started from, you’re in Oz now and you might as well get used to it. Come along, Tatters. There’s nothing to be gained by arguing, it only makes me hungry.”
“But tell me,” the weather cock fluttered into the air, “What am I to do with my life?”
“Keep it – if you can,” chuckled the old soldier and started off between the trees. But Tatters was loathe to leave this singular bird.
“Let him come with us Grampa,” coaxed the Prince. “He won’t need anything to eat and he might help us find the fortune.”
“Yes, do,” crowed the weather cock. “I can waken you in the morning, tell you which way the wind blows and fall upon the heads of your enemies. Have you any enemies?” the weather cock asked hopefully.