our brave, helpful western girls

Dorothy with the silver shoesMy granddad used to read chapter books at the dinner table to his two daughters. My mother says she’d sneak into the library after dinner and read the next chapter.

When granddad brought his family over from Britain, the first things he read to them were The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

"You can’t get much more American than Dorothy Gale and Tom Sawyer," I said to my mother on the phone the other night.

"That’s why he chose those books," she replied.

L. Frank Baum’s choice of a little girl as his protagonist was influenced by Alice in Wonderland: "The secret of Alice’s success," he wrote, "lay in the fact that she was a real child, and any normal child could sympathize with her all through her adventures."

"But," writes Michael Patrick Hearn in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, "Dorothy is not an English child."

"Both are independent, brave, and practical little girls," noted novelist Alison Lurie in "The Fate of the Munchkins" (The New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974), "but Alice, as an upper-middle-class Victorian child, is far more concerned with manners and social status. She worries about the proper way to address a mouse, and is glad she doesn’t have to live in a pokey little house like Mabel. Dorothy already lives in a pokey little house. Demographers would class her among the rural poor, but she takes for granted her equality with everyone she meets."

The Annotated Wizard of OzDorothy is American through and through. And she embodies not only America but the West as well. Baum firmly believed in "the superiority of western women in usefulness over their eastern sisters. … What a vast difference between these undesirable damsels [of the East] and our brave, helpful western girls! … Here a woman delights in being useful; a young lady’s highest ambition is to become a bread-winner. And they do." They "have more energy and vitality than those of the east, and … there is no nonsense or self pride in their constitutions and they cannot brook idleness when they see before them work to be done which is eminently fitted to their hands." Dorothy embodies this same Western determination and independence in her quest to get back to Kansas.

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