The desert wasn’t deadly at first; like a lot of details about Oz, L. Frank Baum developed the desert gradually as ideas and plot points occurred to him. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a sandy waste cuts Oz off from the rest of the world, particularly that odd place (the Midwest) where the Wizard and Dorothy came from.
In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and their companions fly over that desert out of Oz, where they find a country that apparently uses paper money denominated in dollars. As Michael O. Riley pointed out in Oz and Beyond, Baum’s first two books implied that Oz was nestled somewhere in arid southwestern North America.
But then in Ozma of Oz, Baum had Dorothy travel to Oz by starting in the Pacific Ocean, landing in a fairyland called Ev, and finally crossing the desert on an unrolling carpet. So the countries beyond the desert from Oz are definitely not America. In fact, they seem far from America. Furthermore, while the previous book showed characters standing on the desert, this one implied that doing so would be harmful, or at least unpleasant.
A couple of books later, Baum introduced the alliterative phrase “Deadly Desert.” He quoted this sign erected in front of it:
TO VENTURE UPON THIS DESERT
Curiously, that signs stands in an inhospitable, unpopulated spot, so we have to assume that either (a) it was placed there for the benefit of Dorothy and her companions at that moment, or (b) there are a lot more signs elsewhere along the edge of the sand.
Thereafter, the Deadly Desert is always said to be deadly, even when characters like the Wise Donkey manage inexplicably to cross it. In Baum’s penultimate book, The Magic of Oz, it even gives off nauseating fumes that force birds to fly at high altitudes.
And yet, for all the desert’s deadliness, in the entire Oz series no one ever dies on it.
TOMORROW: Tossing out a theory.