Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Becoming Dorothy

When I was small it was the red sparkly shoes, and how she clicked her heels together, lightly, just so. Later, it was the way she leaned back against the hay, dreaming past the limits of her life. Now, it’s because Dorothy Gale, my favorite movie heroine, is the rare female protagonist in an adventure story—she is the central force of the film, the person with ideas, the one making choices. The witches are powerful opposing energies that are also female and drive the plot forward. In a sense, Dorothy rescues her male sidekicks from their own states of (sometimes literal) paralysis, and helps them achieve their dreams. Oz himself, as it turns out, is no wizard after all—he is just a vulnerable, bumbling man whose greatest talent is trickery—and she sets him free too. But Dorothy, in the end, is more powerful than everyone, because she can leave Oz—she had the power all along. She wants to go home, so she goes home. Toto too. There’s no place like home. The End.

When I became a mother I started to read Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to my children, hoping to find Baum’s version as uplifting as the film. The book, as it turns out, is much, much darker. The bleakness of farm life in Dust Bowl Kansas and the strangeness of the world Dorothy lands in are far more menacing in the book. Nothing feels bright; no one feels powerful. Dorothy is drawn back home to Kansas, but not because she loves or misses it. She explains to the Scarecrow what her home is like: “how gray everything was there.” He, not having a brain, can’t understand why she would want to go back. When she says the famous line—“there’s no place like home”—it is not the heartwarming, shiny-eyed moment that closes the film. It’s more along the lines of: no matter how wretched home is, you are always drawn back, not because you love it but because it is where you come from. “Home” becomes more complex than what the film tells us at the end, with the rising strings and horns and the beaming aunt, uncle, and farm friends. “Home” isn’t what I thought it was to her my whole life. It’s like when Toto pulled the curtain back and there was no wizard, no magic—just the ordinary flawed human standing there, desperately turning the wheels on machines that create a perfect illusion. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

I thought about this a lot. I thought of what might become of Dorothy, if she were real, and this “home” were her inheritance: the gray prairie, the dust, the animals, the plows, the merciless frosts, the cyclones. The unpredictable harvests. Sometimes hunger. Fear. Despair. Marriage, births, children. Deaths. When I began to write Kansas, I imagined her marriage to one of the farm hands, Zeke (the Lion), partly because there’s something about that moment in the film when Zeke saves her from the pigs. The Lion is someone driven to aggression and exaggerated masculinity in order to mask his fear. I could easily imagine that tendency growing more and more vicious with poverty and hardship and time and loss. We hope for better things for Dorothy, but from a realist point of view, the curtain is drawn back: she will inherit the life of “home” she describes to the Scarecrow—a life defined by want and work, a daily act of survival.

The only thing that might save Dorothy is her one true power: her ability to leave one world for another. In my story, Dorothy breaks herself free of the bonds of “home,” that place that pulls you back and back again because it’s what you inherited. She rejects it as her own—she sheds a skin. In doing so, she breaks her children free from that cycle of inheritance. In her final dreaming moment in Kansas, I see her as the grown-up version of the girl dreaming against the haystacks—what would the woman’s dream be? It would be darker, but not all that different—both the girl and the woman long for a new reality in which they can be free of the farm, of home and its hold on them.  

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