09 November 2009

“Growing Up When the Time Comes”

From A. S. Byatt’s review of Maria Tatar’s The Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood for the Guardian:

Perhaps Tatar’s most original contribution to thought about children’s stories and what they do to their inhabitants is about how the addicted readers are also learning (most of them) to deal with growing up. The great powers of the mind in the world of children’s books are a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity. The writers feed both with colours never seen on sea or land, with moons and stars and gold and silver and monsters and dangers. But they are also teaching mastery of language which is the stuff of thought and necessary to growing up when the time comes.

A particularly telling chapter is called “The Great Humbug”. It discusses The Wizard of Oz and what Dorothy learns from discovering that the great magician is in fact only a timid illusionist who makes an emerald city by handing out green spectacles. Dorothy ends the story by saying that she wants to go home to Kansas and Aunt Em – thus making herself alive in the real world.
Of course, Dorothy returns to Oz four more times in L. Frank Baum’s series, and eventually goes there to live, never growing up. But by that time, she’s helped the country become truly magical, not just illusive. She’s helped the humbug Wizard become a real one. And she’s even helped her aunt and uncle find a new home when the bank is about to foreclose on the farm.

Dorothy remains, Baum assures us, an ordinary little girl of the sort who still has “a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity.” But we readers know she’s also grown up as much as she needs to.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

Significantly Dorothy wants to back to Kansas because she knows her Aunt and Uncle will be worried about her. It's not that she misses home so much as that she wants her "parents" to know she's okay.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point—Dorothy is already acting fairly grown-up in Wizard. At least if we take her words at face value; sometimes kids express their own worries as concern for others.

As brave as Dorothy is in Wizard, I think she shows even more confidence and spitfire spirit when we next see her in Ozma. In the first book, she calls herself “small and meek,” though she doesn’t act meek. After successfully returning home from that adventure, Dorothy knows she isn’t meek at all.