The story behind the story that became the legendary movie The Wizard of Oz.
Letts (The Perfect Horse, 2016, etc.) builds her historical novel around Maud Gage Baum, the high-spirited wife of L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original Wizard of Oz books. In one of two intercut narratives, the 77-year-old Maud, who’d exerted a strong influence on her late husband, appears on the set of the movie in 1938; there, she encounters 16-year-old Judy Garland—cast as Dorothy—among others. The second narrative opens in Fayetteville, New York, in 1871 and traces Maud’s life from age 10: her girlhood as the daughter of an ardent suffragette; her brief time at Cornell University—she was one of the first women admitted there; her early marriage to Baum, an actor at the time; and the births of their four sons. Frank, a dreamer, was not so talented at making money, and the family endured a hardscrabble, peripatetic life until he scored as a writer. This part of the story is dramatic and sometimes-poignant, though it goes on a bit. (Read carefully, and you can spot some elements that made their ways into the books and movie.) The Hollywood part is more entertaining even if some of it feels implausible. Maud did meet Judy Garland and attend the premiere of the film in real life. But in the book she tries to protect and nurture Garland, who was at the mercy of her abusive stage mother and the filmmakers and was apparently fed amphetamines to keep her weight down. And while it’s true the movie’s best-loved song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” was almost cut at the last minute, the book has Maud persuading studio chief L.B. Mayer to keep it in.
Much is made in these pages about the power of make-believe, and while the book falls short of magical, it’s still an absorbing read.