Photo: Wistful ~

Perhaps the ultimate American travel narrative is L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It inspired my own dreams of travel at a young age, when I used to hope for a tornado to whisk me away from the suburbs of Detroit to a magical land like Oz.

Reading the novel again as an adult, I’m struck by how much the power of the book’s strong female protagonist keeps getting neutered by Hollywood. In the 1939 Hollywood movie, Dorothy is played by a delightful yet tremulous Judy Garland, constantly on the verge of tears. Fast forward to today, with Disney’s new release Oz: The Great and Powerful, starring James Franco, which takes the focus off L. Frank Baum’s proto-feminist heroine and makes the story all about the guy.

However, in the world of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — and its charmingly daffy 13 sequels you’ve probably never heard of, let alone had the opportunity to enjoy reading — Oz is a quasi-socialist matriarchy where strong, sensible women run a radically egalitarian society of oddballs and money doesn’t exist.

As for Dorothy, she’s a hardy and hardheaded traveler, more like Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad than weepy Judy G. or the raffish, charming, and culturally omnipresent Mr. Franco. Sure, she sheds an occasional sob or two, but Baum’s heroine generally reacts to the wonders she encounters with a strange remove, a mixture of benign curiosity and bemusement.

For example, when the Good Witch of the North vanishes into thin air, Toto is startled, but Dorothy, who’s only been in Oz for several minutes, is entirely unimpressed: “Dorothy, knowing her to be a witch, had expected her to disappear in just that way, and was not surprised in the least.”

In the words of noted fiction author and children’s lit scholar Alison Lurie, “[Dorothy’s] virtues are those of a Victorian hero rather than a Victorian heroine. She is brave, active, independent, sensible, and willing to confront authority.”

All the TripAdvisors and travel-sized anti-bacterial wipes in the world can’t help when in the middle of some journey you find yourself suddenly questioning the meaning of your own existence.

In fact, I would argue that Dorothy is not just a Victorian hero — she’s an all-American hero, and an all-American traveler. The way she faces the problem of travel is the same way Americans have solved all kinds of problems since the age of the Pilgrims: with our good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic. In The Wizard of Oz, travel is transformed into a step-by-step process, much like a job. Because of this, the challenges of life on the road become conquerable by being broken down into small chores, which are then ticked off in a sensible order:

“We must go and search for water,” Dorothy explains to the mystified Scarecrow, who not being made of flesh, never needs to eat, drink, or sleep. “To wash my face clean after the dust of the road, and to drink, so the dry bread will not stick in my throat.”

All concerns, big or small, material or metaphysical, can be dealt with in this same practical way. Need a brain, a heart, courage, or a way home to Kansas? Ask the Wizard. How do you get to the Wizard? By following the Yellow Brick Road. Hungry? Stop at the nearest farmhouse and ask for something to eat. Thirsty? Find a rushing brook and drink your fill. Confronted by vicious Kalidahs (terrifying monsters that didn’t make it into the 1939 movie)? Lure them over a bridge into a deep rocky ravine.

And what to do when an evil witch steals your magic shoe? Melt her, of course.

Even emotion itself becomes a kind of process — for instance, when the Tin Woodman cries after the Wizard floats away in his balloon:

“I should like to cry a little because Oz is gone, if you will kindly wipe away my tears, so that I shall not rust.”

“With pleasure,” [Dorothy] answered, and brought a towel at once. Then the Tin Woodman wept for several minutes, and she watched the tears carefully and wiped them away with the towel. When he had finished he thanked her kindly and oiled himself thoroughly with his jeweled oilcan, to guard against mishap.

The danger of this kind of practical travel philosophy, to which so many of Dorothy’s compatriots still subscribe, is that it leaves little room for the mystical aspects of travel. All the TripAdvisors and travel-sized anti-bacterial wipes in the world can’t help when in the middle of some journey you find yourself suddenly questioning the meaning of your own existence. Because travel strips us of our daily comforts and routines, we become vulnerable to this kind of inner questioning, to which Dorothy seems immune, perhaps because she is the heroine of a children’s novel.

However, the advantage of her practical approach is that it recognizes an essential truth of travel, which is that each of our new experiences is merely and exactly what it is, and doesn’t “mean” anything. Rather, the deeper spiritual lessons we often ascribe to a journey are usually ones we’ve already brought with us from home.

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