Book Review: ‘Finding Dorothy’ by Elizabeth Letts

Finding DorothyMagic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere. Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime.”

I really enjoyed reading this. Finding Dorothy is a historical novel that fictionalizes the true history behind the inspiration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz books, as told by the author’s wife, Maud Baum. The story follows Maud throughout two different time periods; her youth and young adulthood when she meets and marries L. Frank Baum in the mid to late 1800s, and the production of The Wizard of Oz film adaption by MGM over the course of 1938 to 1939. After hearing about the film adaption of her late husband’s beloved story, Maud decides to work her way into MGM in hopes that she will be able to see the script and recommend any necessary changes, especially surrounding the character of Dorothy. Her eye is also soon caught by a young Judy Garland, whose safety she fears for on the MGM lot given her outstanding talent but very young age. Maud’s instinct to protect young Judy is driven by another young girl she knew who also didn’t get a happy ending; a young girl we learn about throughout the novel.

Finding Dorothy is very entertaining for anyone who has grown up either watching The Wizard of Oz (one of the most seen films in history), or also reading the books on which the film was based. Maud’s inclination to protect a character like Dorothy despite everyone’s insistence that she’s not real is very touching and heartwarming, given that a multitude of famous fictional characters are often based off of real people. The novel is also very well written and easy to get through; the kind of book you could sit down to only read a chapter or two and then end up reading a hundred pages. The chapters taking place in the present, 1938 and 1939, were the most interesting to me given that The Wizard of Oz film is very near and dear to my heart not only because I grew up watching it like everyone else, but because since growing up I have found new insight and comfort in what the story and the character of Dorothy representinnocence, a longing to belong somewhere, and a yearning to exist in someplace where there isn’t any trouble and where people understand her. For me, and I’m sure for countless others, this is why the story of The Wizard of Oz continues to resonate, since these are themes that never go out of style. Elizabeth Letts does a very good job of capitalizing on these themes, especially surrounding the people on the movie set who grew up reading Baum’s books.

The author also does an exceptional job at chipping away at the age-old link between Judy Garland and Dorothy; a link that scholars, critics, experts, and the actress herself have long since suggested that Garland and the character were impeccably similar in heart and spirit when the film was made. In a story about the origin story of one of fiction’s most famous characters, Dorothy Gale—the girl who wanted to fly over the rainbow—the author wastes no time in pointing out that a young and vulnerable Judy Garland, who was hopelessly susceptible to the ruthless Hollywood studio system in place at that time, was just another Dorothy character looking for her rainbow and yearning for her happy ending (a happy ending which Garland claimed she herself never received). “What must the weight of so much expectation—of men, and their ambitions and desires—feel like on the shoulders of a lonely teenage girl? 

For me, the novel began to drag about halfway through, when it appeared as though the author was losing interest in fleshing out the details of the chapters taking place in the past: she quickly glosses over crucial events, does a lot of telling instead of showing, and it feels as though she definitely wanted to get back to the much more interesting storyline taking place in the present. The author explains her writing process and inspiration for Finding Dorothy in an afterword at the end, explaining that the entire novel is a fictional story based closely on the truth and that she poured over the diaries, journals, and letters of the real Baum family in order to properly construct a fiction that very well might have been close to the truth. She also explains that she did leave some things up to the imagination regarding Maud’s youth and the origin story of Dorothy, writing that she didn’t feel completely comfortable fictionalizing every aspect of the plot. I understand that, but after awhile the chapters taking place in the past were just a bore to get through. I believe she could have ended the story in the past once she started to not feel comfortable fictionalizing it further, and then focused solely on the production of the MGM film adaption since that was clearly a much more interesting storyline for both the author and the reader.

In any event, I really enjoyed Finding Dorothy. I think it would make a great movie, and could join the ranks of other films about the real-life origin stories of American literature classics, in the vein of Finding Neverland or Saving Mr. Banks. I think this story could even resonate more than those films, given that The Wizard of Oz movie is such a classic story beloved by countless generations whose popularity has even transcended that of the books on which the film was based. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film rights for Finding Dorothy get snapped up sometime soon, but until then, I’d recommend reading the book. 4/5 stars.

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