08 November 2011

The Influence of Scalawagons

Scalawagons of Oz might well be John R. Neill’s most influential book. Not because it’s good. In fact, it’s the worst of the three or four Oz books Neill wrote. He was a talented illustrator, but had no apparent sense of narrative structure.

Among Neill’s other Oz books, The Wonder City of Oz was rewritten by a Reilly & Lee editor, and A Runaway in Oz was rewritten (with far more attention to the original story) by Eric Shanower.

Neill’s Lucky Bucky in Oz benefits from a conventional Oz-book narrative: An American child cast into fairyland by random disaster gathers companions and makes his adventurous way to the Emerald City. However, despite having such a simple plot laid out, Neill managed to make his timeline loop back on itself in an impossible way.

Even among that bunch, however, Scalawagons of Oz is the worst. Events happen randomly. Hardly any character is really likable. The storyline, such as it is, accumulates the tension of a sagging strand of chewing gum.

Furthermore, the book introduces mass-manufactured sentient automobiles into Oz, reason enough for some fans to reject the book. While L. Frank Baum established that Oz had electricity, and even some electrical communications systems (controlled by the elite), he made sure not to include modern transportation technology: no trains, steamboats, aeroplanes, or motorized runabouts. Having to travel by foot or Sawhorse guaranteed that people had adventures. Those cars called Scalawagons (Neill tried too hard on his puns) could have ruined life in Oz for readers. Therefore, none of Neill’s official successors as Oz authors, and few of his unofficial ones, have incorporated the Scalawagons into their stories.

So how is that book influential? Because, as David Maxine recently wrote at Hungry Tiger Talk, reading it pushed other authors into writing their own, better Oz books. The first was Rachel Cosgrove Payes, then a housewife biologist, who offered Reilly & Lee The Hidden Valley of Oz in 1951. About a decade later, she embarked on a long career writing other types of novels.

As the second example, David’s posting displays a copy of Scalawagons inscribed by three-time Newbery Honor winner Eloise Jarvis McGraw with these words:
This book…came into the possession of my daughter (and co-author) Lauren Lynn McGraw, who was reading it one day in 1962, looked up at me and said, ”We could write a better Oz book!” Whether we did or not is not for me to say, but we tried
The McGraws’ Merry Go Round in Oz (1963) was one of the best in the series, certainly by conventional measures of writing style.

Finally, a less worthy example of Scalawagons’ influence might be a curious story from Wow Comics, #48 (1946), which shows Mary Marvel fighting robots shaped like Oz characters. Alongside the easily recognized Scarecrow and Tin Woodman is a strange creature called the What-is-it. As David pointed out in reprinting this tale in Oz-Story, #2, that creature looks like the main villain in Scalawagons, published five years earlier and quite possibly still sitting unsold on a bookstore shelf.


Anonymous said...

Was Cosgrove just a housewife? Wasn't she a pharmacologist at some point? Perhaps she had become a full time housewife by the time HIDDEN VALLEY was published.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right; I misremembered. I recalled that she wrote Hidden Valley for her son, but in fact she wrote it before her marriage to entertain herself and her mother. So she was probably still working at the time.