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A Barnstormer in Oz: 01/28/11

cover art

When I was in the third grade I was nearly held back a year. Although I had tested into the advanced track, I wasn't a very motivated student. My third grade teacher gave my parents an ultimatum. I had to learn my multiplication tables and I had to improve my reading. Multiplication was tedious but doable; it was just memorization.

Reading though, that sounded like torture. But being held back a year sounded even worse. So I agreed to read. I can remember sitting on my brother's floor and reading him all of the Golden Books on his shelf (probably a hundred of them). I can remember digging out my old copy The Hobbit (with the awesome illustrations from the 1977 animated film) and reading it for myself. Before my mother had always read it to me.

My mother of course got books for me to read too, based on suggestions from the teacher. I started to notice something about reading. The assigned stuff was frustrating and and the stuff I read for fun, was well fun. So for every assigned book I read, I also read something I wanted to.

Still feeling unsure of reading, I stuck with stories I knew. I went with books where I had seen the movie: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

The Baum books were something else. They sparked something in me I didn't know was possible. Each book made me want more. I loved the stories. I loved the illustrations. I had a total crush on Ozma (I still sort of do).

Along the way I began to realized I liked fantasy and science fiction. Also along the way I noticed in the adult section of science fiction, some covers sporting characters I knew like Alice. These characters were on books by Philip José Farmer.

The first book of Farmer's that I ever tried was A Barnstormer in Oz. I had run out of Oz books and I knew about barnstorming from the stories my grandmother had told of her old barnstorming friend. So over the summer before 4th grade (yes, I passed!) I made my first attempt at A Barnstormer in Oz.

In the twenty-seven years since first reading it (and probably not understanding much beyond Dorothy's son flying an airplane through a green cloud to Oz and meeting Glinda) I forgot the plot and decided to re-read it last year when Farmer passed away at age 91. All the time I read the book I had nagging feelings of deja vu as bits and pieces flashed into my memory.

This time around I couldn't help but compare Farmer's book to two other Oz inspired stories: Tin Man (a three part miniseries) and Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Farmer's version of Oz feels more closely tied to the Baum books than Maguire's version. In fact Farmer through Hank Stover's observations while in Oz makes it clear what details from Oz he is working from and which ones he has tossed aside.

If you've read the Oz series you know the series changed over time. As Dorothy's popularity with fans increased Baum gave her a permanent home in Oz (along with her aunt, uncle and of course Toto) and she was elevated to being a "Princess of Oz." Baum also provided more and more fan service, working in suggestions from the fan mail he received. The final Oz books weren't even written by Baum but by then Oz was basically an early 20th century franchise. So Farmer in his book drew a line in the sand with the first book on one side and all of the others except for a few tidbits on the other.

A Barnstormer in Oz though isn't just Farmer having a sentimental romp through Baum's creation. Farmer takes the time to think about how Oz and the other kingdoms work, what their language might be like and the ethical issues of inanimate objects gaining sentiency.

There is also a discussion of war and weaponry. First there is a war between the witches of the south and north. This though is only a precursor to a larger planned invasion from Earth. Here is where the book lost me, and I suppose it did the last time as well. The method of making the invasion possible and motivation behind the invasion seemed forced to me. It felt like filler when Farmer ran out of ideas for his social discourse.

Comments (2)

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Comment #1: Saturday, January, 29, 2011 at 03:31:05

Julie P

I have all of the Oz books on my Nook, but I haven't taken the time to read them. Some day! Thanks for sharing...

Comment #2: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 20:44:33


One can read an Oz book in an afternoon. I hope the Nook versions have the ilustrations; they really add to the magic of the books.

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