BookBrowse Reviews Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

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Finding Dorothy

by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts X
Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Finding Dorothy explores the inspiration behind the famous stories of Oz through the eyes of Maud Gage Baum, L. Frank's Baum independent and outspoken wife.

Maud Gage Baum was never afraid to speak up and share her opinion. Born to famous suffragist Matilda Gage, Maud was just as clever and capable as the boys in her hometown, and she knew when and how to assert herself to claim what she deserved. During her time as a coed at Cornell University, Maud was introduced to L. Frank Baum, and there began a romance that would travel from the American frontier to Chicago to a land somewhere over the rainbow. Finding Dorothy is a fictionalized yet thoroughly researched peek behind the curtain of the famous stories of Oz, exploring the lives of Maud and Frank and their experiences that later surfaced in Baum's famous novels, including the one that inspired a classic American film.

The story is told through two timelines spanning Maud's younger days in 1870s New York, to the late 1930s when she butts heads with the higher-ups at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and befriends a young Judy Garland on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Although the two narratives are very distinct, they are expertly woven together to show how Maud became the formidable woman who refused to back down in the face of powerful men who wanted to change her husband's story.

The first timeline focuses on Maud and Frank's lives together, from their first meeting to the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. It's wonderful to see the pieces of their history that inspired Frank's tale—the scarecrow that lived in the yard next to the Gages' house, Frank's time as a traveling salesman for Baum's Castorine oil, the paste emerald ring Frank gave to Maud when money was tight—but it's just as wonderful to see the love between the two. The Baums face a number of setbacks throughout their years together, but the combination of Maud's good sense and hard work and Frank's enthusiasm and wild imagination kept them together. Maud is the wiser of the pair, and it's easy to understand her frustration with her husband when he indulges in his fanciful stories and ideas rather than finding the sort of career that would keep a roof over the family's heads. But time and time again, Maud is reminded of her husband's goodness and his unerring optimism, and she can't help but believe in him. It's that mix of joyfulness and Maud's trust that leads Frank to begin scribbling down his tales of Oz, and that eventually makes Dorothy Gale a household name.

It's that same idealism that Maud is fighting for in the 1930s. After finagling herself onto the soundstage at MGM, Maud begins her mission to make sure that The Wizard of Oz is faithful to her husband's story. However, what she truly ends up fighting for is Judy Garland herself. In Judy, Maud sees the spirit of Dorothy, a young girl hoping with all her heart that there's something more out there for her. But the success of the film depends on her skills, and the studio is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Judy looking young and innocent, including forcing her to smoke, take a variety of stimulants and starve herself. Maud finds this treatment reprehensible, and she takes Judy under her wing, doing whatever she can to keep the young girl safe and to nurture her hopes and dreams as she knew Frank would have done. Maud's closeness with Judy gives her the opportunity to influence the writing of "Over the Rainbow," a song that truly embodies the theme of hopefulness. Through the song, Maud is reminded of all the love, joy and dreams that Frank poured into his stories and into their relationship, and upon hearing Judy sing, Maud knows that the film will spark a bit of Frank's unfailing positivity in every one of its viewers.

Finding Dorothy is the story behind the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but it's also the story of a woman who fell in love with a dreamer and fought to ensure that those dreams were shared with thousands of readers and viewers. Elizabeth Letts narrates the events of Maud Gage Baum's life eloquently, while reminding readers that they should never lose hope that a brighter day is waiting just beyond the rainbow.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2019, and has been updated for the January 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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