By the time “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” went on sale in 1900, author L. Frank Baum was forty-four and had failed at a long list of professional endeavors, including stage actor, newspaper publisher, and traveling salesman. Yet Baum never lost sight of his dream of becoming a writer, and ultimately managed to create one of the best-known and most-loved stories of all time. In the process he became the world's first successful children’s book author.
In “Finding Oz,” author Evan I. Schwartz takes the reader on a trip through Baum’s life, revealing how the people and places he encountered spawned the now iconic images and characters immortalized in The Wizard of Oz. Did you know, for instance, that as a boy Baum encountered real yellow brick roads in Peekskill, New York, where the Syracuse native attended Peekskill Military Academy? Schwartz imagines a young Baum arriving in town for the first time, at which point he inevitably would have asked for directions to his new school. The likely reply? “Follow the yellow brick road.”
“Finding Oz “ is filled with interesting tidbits like these, and Oz fans will no doubt delight in learning about the inspiration for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Emerald City. Not to mention how Baum’s dual view of witches reflected the life of his good witch/bad witch mother-in-law—radical women’s rights leader, Matilda Joslyn Gage.
But in spite of the longstanding popularity of the Oz series of books, Baum’s life story was more closely associated with failure than success. When he died, he should have been an exceptionally wealthy man, yet he left his wife Maud with little more than a thousand dollars in cash. His obituary in the Syracuse Journal summed it up best: “L. Frank Baum made balm of failure. He kept everlastingly at it.”