It’s hard to imagine a more essentially American life than Maud Gage Baum’s. The wife of the author of the beloved Oz books began as the daughter of one of the nation’s most celebrated suffragists, Matilda Gage, and lived through the nation’s expanse to the West, two World Wars, and the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster. In this version of her story, Maud acts as backstage mentor to young Judy Garland during the 1939 filming of The Wizard of Oz, and recounts her life story as a way of explaining the origins of her husband’s magical land and the character of Dorothy. There’s no historical evidence that Maud had such extensive access to the actress, though she did act as a PR consultant, but it’s a delightful context for a fascinating life story.
From the halls of Cornell University, where Maud was among the first generation of coeds, to life on the rails in a traveling theater troupe, to a homestead in South Dakota, to suburban boredom in Chicago, Maud steadfastly supports her dreamy husband’s many attempts to get rich quick. Each home she struggles to make for them and her four sons contributes another thread to the tapestry that becomes the beloved Oz series. The depiction of the studio system that victimized Garland is equally nuanced and complex, and Maud comes across as a person it would in fact be wonderful to spend time with.
Letts reflects Maud’s optimism in a breezy, chatty style, so Frank Baum’s reputation is somewhat whitewashed in this novel; his infamous racist editorials about the massacre at Wounded Knee are never mentioned, nor are the more troubling political aspects of his literary creations. This is understandable, however, given the author’s focus on Maud’s dedication to turning the messy minutiae of life into opportunities for joy and wonder.