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Finding Dorothy: 04/20/19

Finding Dorothy

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts is primarily the story of Maud Baum consulting at MGM during the filming of The Wizard of Oz (1938). There are also extended flashbacks of her life with L. Frank Baum that serve to contextualize her opinions on the studio's adaptation of the film.

In biographies of L. Frank Baum I've read, his wife isn't usually treated very well. She's caricatured either as a harpy or a robot. She was the daughter of Matilda Gage, a suffragette. While Maud was certainly her mother's daughter, she wasn't as outspoken as her and her choice to live more "traditionally" than her upbringing is difficult for many biographers (of her husband) to come to terms with.

Here, Maud is presented as shy and stubborn but still human. In the flashbacks she's shown struggling between the expectations of her mother and her own personal happiness.

If, like me, you're familiar with Baum's life, the flashback scenes will read as fairly faithful novelizations of key moments. As this book is ultimately about the transformation of Dorothy as idea to book protagonist to vehicle for a young Judy Garland, there is more emphasis put on dramatizing real life events that may have inspired Baum's most famous character.

For me through, the meat and bones of this novel is in the "present day" bits where Maud is at the studio. Here she is in her late seventies, and has been a widow for about twenty years. She has survived so many things and so many people that she has lost much (but not all) of her youthful shyness. She is a small powerhouse willing to take on the studio to see that the film is adapted with its heart and soul intact.

She's also shown to be the one person who recognizes the anguish Judy Garland is already in and can see ahead of her a long fight with depression. She does her best to nip it in the bud, but ultimately she doesn't have that sort of power.

How much influence Maud had with the filming, isn't something I know. I do know she was paid to promote the film and was interviewed by Ripley where she told about her life with Frank. There is also a photograph of a her and Garland eating together—something that is dramatized in the novel.

Finally, while this book is realistic historical fiction it does still sit within the bounds of the road narrative spectrum. Maud, though she has been through a lot, from the point of view of the studio, is a marginalized traveler (66). She isn't L. Frank and she isn't a studio executive, nor is she an actor. Her destination, and really, the entirety of the "present day" narrative is set within Culver City (and more broadly, Los Angeles, though it wasn't the all encompassing city then that it is now). Nonetheless, the destination is the city (00). Maud's method of travel is the blue highway (33) — both in terms of roads (no interstates as we know them, yet) and including older trolley lines (some even discontinued by 1938). Put all together, it's the story of a marginalized woman traveling through the city via the blue highway.

Five stars

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