January 18, 2019

California Revisited

After spending so much time in California the first time around (13 books!), I feel a little abashed to be revisiting the state so soon. However, I’ve recently read two books that I really want to highlight here.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, where the setting really becomes an integral part of the story, or where we, as readers, learn something about the geography, history, or people of the state.

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts (2019) – When I saw this book in a Little Free Library near me, I was super-excited! As I mentioned while covering Kansas, I was a big Oz fan while growing up. This lovely book tells the story not only of Frank Baum and the writing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but also some of the story of the making of the beloved MGM movie version. Both parts of the story are told from the perspective of Maud Baum, who was Frank’s wife and has a fascinating story of her own. Maud was the daughter of Matilda Gage, one of the early suffragists–rubbing elbows with “Auntie” Susan (B. Anthony) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who were frequent visitors. Maud was also one of the first women to attend Cornell University.

This was a wonderful book! And although it is split between multiple states–upstate New York (Syracuse area plus Cornell in Ithaca), California (primarily the MGM lot in Culver City), and South Dakota (during a drought that inspired the bleak, gray landscape that Baum used for Kansas)–I feel that Letts did a very good job of making each location feel distinct and real.

There are descriptions of Cornell, incorporating Ithaca and Cayuga Lake, as well as descriptions of Fayetteville, Manlius, and Syracuse, where the Baums and Gages lived, with plenty of fall color and winter weather thrown in.

In no time, they had entered the outskirts of Syracuse, and soon were arriving in the elegant district of Clinton Square. A sharp tang from the Erie Canal wafted over South Salina Street. Barges crowded up along the street’s edge, and the shouts and clanging from the docks vibrated in the air. Flanking the square on the other side was the towering turret of the Syracuse Savings Bank, topped with a flag that rippled in the light spring breeze. Just adjacent was the Syracuse Grand Opera House, where snippets of excited conversation floated up from a crowd of well-dressed patrons debarking from carriages.

There are also the snippets Letts gives us about the first women who attended Cornell, including the isolation and demoralization they faced, and the “super-secret all-female society” they are rumored to have formed: the Society of the Broom.

In 1872, when the first sixteen women enrolled at Cornell, the men had refused to enter into any social intercourse with these new coeds, shunning them in classes, ignoring them as they walked across campus, and banning them from ever entering in the all-male fraternities that controlled the campus’s social life. … Of course, the men did not fail to notice the symbolism behind their choice–the broom, witches, the dark arts of women.

When it comes to South Dakota, Letts shows us two sides of the same coin, giving us some beautiful landscape descriptions, like this, Maud’s first impressions of the prairie:

Just beyond the end of the busy thoroughfare lay a flat unbroken expanse of wavy grass extending as far as the eye could see. The sky, more prominent than any of the buildings, seemed to have a personality of its own–now blue, now gray, and now a startling pink and orange. From a distance, the prairie appeared to be a study in monochrome muted greens, but up close it burst with yucca flowers, blue sage, and butterflies.

At other times, though, Letts reminds us of the harshness of the region, and fills in the backstory of the Baums with the bleakness and hardships endured by homesteaders on the frontier, particularly through her sister Julia’s family.

Here in Dakota, it seemed as if God himself had designed a way to torture people. Blizzards so sudden and severe that a body could get lost on his own property, hailstones the size of hen’s eggs, a relentless sun beating down upon you and not a spot of shade in which to escape it, rains so heavy that a flash flood could carry you away–and the most dreaded of all, the tornadoes, with their ungodly black funnel clouds.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was seeing all the bits and pieces of the Baums’ life story that inspired the Oz books: stories that Frank tells the children at various times throughout the book, as well as the larger arc of Letts’ re-imagining of the inspiration for Dorothy herself. (Letts admits in her Author’s Note that scholars haven’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation for the Dorothy name and character.) But there are mini-backstories for Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter, and for Jim the Cab Horse, as well as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto–not to mention the wonderful sections with Judy Garland during the movie filming.

Overall, despite being split between multiple states, Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts was a great late addition to our reading challenge!

(I should note that I read an advance reader’s edition, as the book goes on sale in February 2019, and there may be errors in the above quotes for that reason.)

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett (1997) – This was another book whose setting is split between multiple states, both of which I’ve covered in the past–California and Nebraska. But Patchett does a wonderful job with her settings. When I opened the book and discovered that the first section is called, “At the Intersection of George Burns and Gracie Allen,” I knew I had to write at least a partial review. I’ve been to that intersection–it’s a literal, physical intersection on the campus of Cedars Sinai Hospital, which really is on the “last blocks of Los Angeles before it became Beverly Hills.” And it really is a little surreal, walking its hallways, knowing that, “Sometimes it seemed that every wealthy person in Los Angeles had died at Cedars Sinai.”

She walked down Gracie Allen Drive and when it intersected with George Burns Road, she stopped. … Every time Sabine walked down that street she thought that Gracie Allen must have suffered at the end of her life, and that it was her suffering that led the city to give her a street. And maybe her husband had walked down that street some evenings. Maybe when he missed her most he would drive to Cedars Sinai and walk past the ficus trees and the agapanthus bushes and all of the needlepoint ivy, the full length of the street that bore his wife’s name. Then one day when he felt himself getting older and the walks more difficult to make, he had gone to his friends and asked if possibly he could have a street for himself. It was not vanity. It was a marker to say he was in love with her.

Patchett has a wonderful way with images. Even though the story Sabine imagines isn’t true (according to Seeing Stars, George Burns Road was named first in honor of the comedian’s 90th birthday, then Gracie Allen Drive was named for Burns’s 99th birthday), we can visualize it with the character and imagine it to be true, just for a fleeting moment of poignancy.

Patchett does this with Sabine’s imaginings of Parsifal’s life growing up gay and closeted in Nebraska as well:

At school he would beg for art history and they would tell him, Next year, next year, but it always got canceled at the last minute, replaced by a section of advanced shop. … And then there were the girls, the ones he had to dance with at the Harvest Dance and the Spring Dance and after every rodeo to avoid being found out, to avoid being beaten with bottles and fists and flat boards found in a pile behind the gymnasium. … He kept his eyes down and free of longing for the ones he longed for, the ones who danced in circles past him without notice.

The descriptions of the Fairfax District, where Sabine grew up are accurate and full of little details, including Canter’s restaurant and deli, as are many of the other wonderful Los Angeles tidbits–the Magic Castle, the original Glendale Forest Lawn, Good Samaritan Hospital where Bobby Kennedy died. But perhaps most importantly, (at least for our reading challenge purposes) Patchett really captures the feel of Los Angeles and the contrast to Nebraska–in a way that doesn’t belittle either one. It’s in the way that Sabine accepts LA’s immigrant nature very nonchalantly, while Dot and Bertie stare in wonder and confusion. The way that Parsifal and Phan embrace the consumerism and star power of burial plots at Forest Lawn, and the way that Sabine is overwhelmed by the snow. … There is beauty in both, and Patchett does a wonderful job capturing that! I’m so glad I found The Magician’s Assistant!

(For those who aren’t aware, Ann Patchett also wrote Run, which I reviewed recently for our trip through Massachusetts. I very much enjoyed that one, so I was excited to see this one show up in a Little Free Library near me.)

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