Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
The Wizard of Oz is one of those films – once seen, never forgotten. When my daughter was little, we watched it all the time, and later we went to see it in the theatre after the TV show to find a Dorothy for a new production in the West End in 2011. Somehow, I’d never read the book as a child, and when I did get to read it some years ago (reviewed here), I found Baum’s original Oz a darker place, and Dorothy has other adventures on a supplementary quest to get home.
Letts’ novel tells the story behind both the book and the film, told from the perspective of Maud, Frank L Baum’s wife. It uses a dual time-line: Maud’s own story from her childhood onwards begins in Fayetteville, New York in 1871, but the novel starts in 1938 with Maud arriving at MGM studios to see Louis B Mayer, with whom she has an appointment. We soon find out that Maud is a lady of strong character, who won’t be put off and she gets in to see Mayer, offering him her services as a consultant on the film of her late husband’s masterwork. Mayer assures her that their team is the best, dismissing her, but Maud stands her ground:
“I’m here to look after Dorothy”
Mayer chuckled. “Judy Garland has a mother, Ethel Gumm, I’m sure you’ll find she’s quite involved in taking care of her daughter. I’d suggest you not get in her way. She’s a real fireball, that one.”
“Well, it’s not the actress I’m concerned with …” Maud said. “It’s Dorothy.”
“Without Dorothy, the story is nothing.”
So, Maud gets her foot in the door, and meets Judy Garland for the first time. At first, she feels Judy is too old to play Dorothy, but over the course of the book, they develop a close and touching relationship as Maud coaches her in how to be Dorothy.
Back to Maud’s own life story: she was the youngest daughter of Matilda Jocelyn Gage, a noted author about women’s suffrage. Maud met Frank when she was twenty and studying at college, and fell in love. Frank was a playwright and actor in those days, but later, once their son was born, he left the touring theatre behind. Frank was the kind of man who found it hard to settle at things, initial success nearly always led to boredom and failure – and their life was always about having to make ends meet as Frank went from one scheme to another. But after getting some children’s short stories and poetry he came up with Oz.
Letts has obviously done her research well. Of course, this is a novel, so some artistic licence has been incorporated. Some facts are well known – like Frank getting the name of Oz from a filing cabinet label O-Z, others are surely imagined. Maud was indeed paid by MGM to help promote the film and she met and dined with Garland – their relationship, however, appears to have been one of acquaintance more than mentor and mentee.
This was an engrossing read, I sped through the pages, enjoying all the little references built in. The real Maud was apparently a rather strict parent, and Letts softens her to let her coach Garland during the times they meet on set. The writing does tend to veer towards the sentimental, and I couldn’t help but think of the film Saving Mr Banks at times, as the fictionalised Maud has to be as stubborn as PL Travers to protect the original, but Letts obviously loves the formidable Maud and loveable, fallible Frank. I have been inspired to buy myself Aljean Harmetz’s The Making of The Wizard of Oz, from Letts’ further reading list. Some readers will prefer Maud and Frank’s tale, but it was the Hollywood time-line that drew me into this enjoyable novel. (8/10)
Source: Review copy. Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy, (Quercus, April 2019), hardback, 368 pages.