Doing far more than is called for, Mari Ness recently reviewed The Cowardly Lion of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, at the Tor website. Published in 1923, this is the earliest Oz book still under copyright protection. It’s also one of the few strong arguments I know for keeping books that old out of the public domain.
Ness zeroes in on one of the annoying aspects of this book, the character of Notta Bit More, the neurotic circus clown:
The clown follows, he explains, four rules whenever he is in danger. One, try to disguise himself. Two, be polite—very polite. Three, joke. And Four, when all else fails, run away. And not at all to his credit, he follows these same four rules over and over throughout the book, leading to the same scene, over and over:In addition, Notta Bit More overshadows the book’s young American protagonist, erasing one of the strengths of the Oz books, even others with poor plots: empowered children.
Clown sees, or thinks he sees, danger.
Clown puts on disguise.
People react with fear/anger/weapons/claws/large buckets of water.
Clown attempts to be polite to justifiably irritated/angry/frightened/distrustful people who are now in no mood for politeness.
Clown tells unfunny jokes.
People tie up or sit on clown. Readers wait in unfulfilled hope for someone to kill the clown.
One recurring theme of Ness’s reviews of the Oz series is “Ozma fail,” or poor decisions by the young ruler of the Emerald City. Of course, the biggest challenge of telling stories about Oz is that after the first eight books or so Ozma and her mentor Glinda are so powerful and have so much information available to them that it’s hard to build up a real threat. Some things we have to accept for the sake of the story.
But Notta Bit More isn’t one of them.