“ROUSING AND ROLLICKING ADVENTURE”: RUTH PLUMLY THOMPSON’S OZ
by John Fricke
In the words of his publishers, The Reilly & Lee Company, author L. Frank Baum “went away . . . in May nineteen hundred nineteen . . . to take his stories to the little child-souls who had lived here too long ago to read the Oz stories for themselves.” That statement was included in the “To Our Readers” introduction of Baum’s final (and posthumously-released) Oz book, GLINDA OF OZ, which appeared in 1920. By that time, however, Reilly & Lee had determined that they would not let the extraordinarily successful Oz series come to an end with the death of its creator. They approached his widow, Maud Gage Baum, for permission to carry on her husband’s tradition of a fresh Oz escapade every year, to be written by a new author; they agreed to credit any and every forthcoming volume with a declaration on both the cover and title page, “Founded on and Continuing the Famous Oz Stories by L. Frank Baum”; and they guaranteed Maud and, subsequently, her heirs a royalty on any Oz book they published.
With all of that in place, Reilly & Lee discovered a wondrously adept, fanciful, engaging – well, let’s just say it: perfect! – successor to the post of “Royal Historian of Oz.” Ruth Plumly Thompson was thirty when her initial Oz book was published (1921), but she had been writing stories and verse for children for the preceding seven or more years. Her lighthearted output appeared every week on a full page in the PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC LEDGER from August 30, 1914, through April 25, 1921. Thompson’s work was also familiar to readers of (among others) the ST. NICHOLAS, DELINEATOR, and LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL magazines, and her own first book, THE PERHAPPSY CHAPS, appeared in 1918. As a life-long Baum fan (and breadwinner for her mother, younger sister, and herself), she was both keen and excited to accept the Oz assignment when it was proffered a couple of years later.
Last month, this blog appreciatively looked at the manner in which L. Frank Baum resourcefully made light of the dark moments when penning the narrative of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900). Today’s entry pays a different kind of homage to “RPT” (as she often identified herself), in what is an admittedly daunting assignment. It’s unquestionably impossible to chart here all the enchanted kingdoms, personalities, and — to use her own words — “rousing and rollicking” adventures in the nineteen Oz books Miss Thompson wrote between 1921 and 1939 (plus the two published in 1972 and 1976 by The International Wizard of Oz Club). During the recent pandemic, I had the pleasure of re-re-re-re-reading the entire Oz series. Its inherent magic was every bit as omnipresent to me as ever before (if not more so), and I was once again and immediately transported back to my preteen years. That’s when I originally discovered the story-telling sorcery of Baum, Thompson, and the others who created more than forty “official” Oz tales. Anyway, it was this unplanned return to Oz a few months back that: a) brought a constant rush of both recollected and present-day positive emotion; and b) spurred the decision here to — this month — cite at least a handful of the many RPT “flights of fancy” which (one more time!) leapt out at and gratified me.
Certainly, a personal all-time favorite situation is indicated in the art and caption at the top of this blog. About a third of the way into KABUMPO IN OZ (1922), Thompson reintroduces Baum’s ever-detestable, love-to-hate-him Metal Monarch, and in her telling, the former Nome King creates his usual havoc. Having dug a cave off the basement of his Emerald City cottage, he discovers a small case of “Mixed Magic.” It includes a question box that knows and tells all, “Re-animating Rays,” and mysterious flasks of “Flying Fluid,” “Vanishing Cream,” “Spike’s Hair Strengthener,” and “Instantaneous Expanding Extract.” Immediately envisioning an early conquest of Oz, he first opts to gain physical force and tests some of the Strengthener by applying it to the top of his head. Instantly, every strand of hair becomes an iron spike. The diminutive rascal eventually pours the entire bottle of Extract over his head, as well, and within seconds, he expands sideways to fill his cavern wall-to-wall — and then shoots up through the ground, thousands of feet in the air. In the process, his spear-like dome impales itself on the underside of the palace: the “spikes were driven fast into the foundations and [the castle] fitted closer than his scalp.”
“In a panic,” Thompson continues, the giant “Ruggedo began to run.” In an hour, he’d left Oz, crossed the Deadly Desert in one jump, and exhaustedly sat down on a mountain top in Ev. Meanwhile, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Ozma, the Wizard, and a host of Ozians remained trapped in the palace on his head – jostled about like corn in a hot popper.
A side note: For several years in the early 1990s, I annually visited the second-grade class taught by a friend and former neighbor in a school in southeastern Wisconsin. She heartily encouraged her pupils’ interest in books, and to that end inaugurated a “Royal Reader” program in which, once a month, a local celebrity came to the building. Such guests — generally nearby media personalities and thus familiar to the students – were greeted at the school entrance by every member of her class; dressed and crowned in a regal cape and circlet; escorted “in procession” from the foyer to the classroom; and invited to sit on an improvised throne and read a story that they’d chosen and brought along. Each year, I took the Del Ray paperback edition of KABUMPO IN OZ, verbally set-up part of the saga, and then recounted Ruggedo’s supernatural expansion. The concept of the spiked hair (and a giant large enough to wear a castle as headgear) never failed to rivet the students, especially those who were suddenly not too cool for school – or fantasy. 😊
RPT’s glee in exploring and expanding the possibilities of Oz necromancy found smaller, mischievous outlets as well. Although the black-and-white Neill drawing (below) from her JACK PUMPKINHEAD OF OZ (1929) can’t convey the majestic red of the beard therein depicted, the gentleman shown here is Baron Belfaygor of Bourne – Bourne being one of a number of small but sumptuous counties in the appropriately red Quadling Country of Oz. When first encountered in the story, the good lord has inadvertently ruined his own wedding day by summoning the chief mesmerizer of his court to request some specially-conjured, long facial hair to “greatly improve” his appearance. (He’d feel right at home in our horrifically hirsute present-day world . . . .) Unfortunately, the hereinafter “miserable” mesmerizer did his work too well, and the beard not only refused to stop growing, it lengthened at such an alarming rate that it “filled the throne room, ran down the stairs into the pantry, shot up the stairs into the bedrooms, and finally filled every room in the palace.”
Some fifteen chapters later, and after relentless trimming every few minutes, the beard is eventually routed — and rerouted! — thanks to Ozian mainstay Jack Pumpkinhead, Peter from Philadelphia (one of Thompson’s all-American/all-boy heroes), and Snif the Iffin. (That would be a Griffin that’s lost its “grrrr” . . . . ) But part of the fun comes from the many ways in which all that hair is earlier put to use during their travels and travails. It serves as a pseudo-tightrope when they need to cross a chasm. It’s stacked up to provide temporary mattresses for their overnight stay in a cave. Finally, it’s used to drag a forbidden flagon from a fire fountain, and in a concluding plot twist, THAT’S the flagon that enterprising Jack himself wields to reclaim Oz from Mogodore the Mighty — despised Baron of Baffleburg and (briefly) self-proclaimed King of the Emerald City.
On an earlier visit to Oz, that same Peter had already saved the kingdom himself — and from no less than another “overthrow” attempt by the Nome King. The story began when the boy casually purchased a balloon from a suspicious merchant in the “large public square” outside Peter’s Philadelphia home. By some unexpected alchemy, the balloon becomes a balloon bird and flies off with the lad to a small desert island in the midst of the Nonestic Ocean. As fate and RPT would have it, this is the same atoll to which the Nome King had earlier been banished after his stroll off with the Emerald City palace on his head. The ensuing trek of boy and reprobate to the Emerald City fills Thompson’s THE GNOME KING OF OZ (1927), but she first has to devise a unique way to get them off the island – and concocts one! There’s a sudden, churning sea quake, in which a long stretch of the ocean bottom is shaken loose – along with everything on it – and it floats upward to lie on top of the waves. Running down this unexpected and makeshift “road,” Peter and Ruggedo head off in the direction of the nearest mainland, passing sea monsters, mermaids, mer-men, and fish of all sizes. The wrecked hull of a pirate ship, however, pulls them up short; they climb aboard to explore, just before another sea quake again flips the ocean and its sandy foundation. The battered “Plunderoo” remains seaworthy enough, however, to carry them to shore and the onset of further adventures.
Such ingenuity on the part of RPT never seemed to flag, whether across her initial nineteen Oz titles or in the extensive additional fantasy writing she did for children throughout and after that era. Another example: Several years before the lyric of E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and the music of Harold Arlen enabled Judy Garland to journey “Over the Rainbow,” Miss Thompson gave that miraculous arc several places in hoztory. It tangentially appeared in GRAMPA IN OZ (1924), but then manifested itself even more notably eight years later in THE PURPLE PRINCE OF OZ. At a crisis plot point, RPT enlisted the aid of one of Baum’s most popular heroines — Polychrome the Rainbow’s Daughter – who pops up to rescue several worthy travelers from certain death on the Deadly Desert that completely surrounds Oz. The beautiful fairy guides them above and beyond the treacherous burning sands on her father’s bow, thus providing Kabumpo the Elegant Elephant, Randy (the courageous, soon-to-be King of Regalia), and Jinnicky the mystic Red Jinn of Ev, with safe passage to the Winkie Country. Of course, the plus-size girth and weight of the pachyderm makes their descent down the final curve a trifle hasty, but there’s no damage done; the stars of our story are back in Oz – having been first, of course, masterfully captured in their excursion by Neill:
One of the characters that especially delighted Thompson’s readers was discovered by preteen Speedy, a Long Island, NY, resident, on vacation out West with his uncle. At the invitation of a professor friend, they visit his “dig” in Wyoming and come upon his latest literal and figurative unearthing: the “complete skeleton and bones of a mezozoic [sic] dinosaur.” In the momentary absence of the educator, Speedy and Uncle Billy boldly and loosely assemble the framework of the giant monster and spread it out on the ground, just for the sheer fun of the experiment. As they finish, however, an underground geyser bursts “through the earth’s surface, catapulting the boy and the dinosaur aloft . . . . ” As this happens in SPEEDY IN OZ (1934), it will come as no surprise to you to hear that “the hot molten minerals” of the liquid not only solidify the dinosaur bones into their correct shape, but also bring the charmer to life – conversationally and otherwise. He gains the name “Terrybubble” (as a shocked and teeth-chattering Speedy tries to define their situation as “terrible”), but the two are soon fast friends and come to land on a floating island in the sky.
And that’s just the beginning!
As explained in paragraph three above, these are but random samples of the countless and joyous inspirations that make an eternal delight of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s writings. Here’s to all of ’em, however – and especially, today, to the much-cherished RPT herself. Meanwhile, I can do no better than to leave Terrybubble HIMself to share her greeting from the traditional “To My Readers” page of SPEEDY IN OZ:
One more thought, please. I feel it’s a privilege to revisit and share episodes and characters from these books – and to provide little “samples” of the pure pleasure to be found in the Oz of Baum, Thompson, John R. Neill, Jack Snow, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Lauren Lynn McGraw, and Dick Martin.
I also feel it’s a privilege to do it in this forum – and I thank everyone reading here for making possible these visits!
(P.S. Special gratitude this month to Scott Cummings, who shared the color plate images above so that RPT – and John R. Neill – might be glowingly celebrated. 😊 )