August 24, 2017


Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz. By Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. HarperCollins. $17.99.

     L. Frank Baum never made much of Toto – the creator of the land of Oz simply described him as “a little black dog with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose." That has left the field open to Baum’s many successors, writing books of their own about Oz, to decide what to do with Toto and what sorts of abilities he may have. There have even been two books with Toto in the title, Toto in Oz (1986) by Chris Dulabone and Toto of Oz (2006) by Gina Wickwar – although neither is part of the main Oz sequence, which includes the original 14 books by L. Frank Baum, 19 by Ruth Plumly Thompson, three by the primary illustrator of the books, John R. Neill, and a smattering of others.

     Now, for a whole new generation of soon-to-be-enchanted children, along come Michael Morpurgo and Emma Chichester Clark, teaming up for a new-but-familiar journey along the yellow brick road. This is not an independent Oz story featuring or focused on a central character other than Dorothy – that is, it is not like Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz, Glinda of Oz or the other Baum (and many non-Baum) books. It is simply a retelling of the very first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, from the viewpoint of Dorothy’s little dog. But this proves to be quite a wonderful angle on the tale. The story is told in flashback form, as Toto, happily settled back in Kansas and now with his own family, tells his seven puppies about the journey to Oz, with the littlest pup (“Mama hardly noticed me, I was so small”) being especially attentive. The tale itself will be familiar to adults, with Morpurgo including many elements from Baum’s original book plus some from the familiar 1939 movie (such as Dorothy’s shoes in Oz being red rather than silver, as they were in the novel). But Toto’s perspective on the story, which includes unremitting loyalty to Dorothy and, often, concerns about food, gives the narrative a lilt all its own: “Lion and I padded along together ahead of the others, the best of friends, on the lookout for trouble, and behind us came the rest, arm in arm, sometimes singing as they went, Tin Woodman’s great feet clanking on the yellow brick road. There never was a happier band, except for two things – I was getting mighty fed up by this time with eating nothing but nuts, and Dorothy’s singing wasn’t getting any better either.” That sort of comment – a sly, amusing reference to Judy Garland’s beautiful singing voice in the 1939 film – will be enjoyable for grownups, even as the story itself captivates children reading it for the first time (or reading this book to see the tale in a new light).

     Clark’s illustrations are quite different from those of W.W. Denslow in the original novel, and differ as well from Neill’s in the many later Oz books. Clark’s have a character all their own – for example, showing the Scarecrow as tall, jaunty, and considerably more elegantly dressed than one might expect. Dorothy wears a blue-and-white gingham dress and yellow sun bonnet, and Toto himself is simply a big-eyed version of a terrier of some sort (Baum never specified). And Clark comes up with some intriguing ways to handle other characters. The Wizard is a small, professorial man wearing waistcoat and monocle and leaning on a cane, and eventually reveals his name to be Ozzy Mandias, another sly reference that adults (some of them, anyway) will get but children will not. And the Wicked Witch of the West has one huge cyclopean eye and, Toto explains, did not bleed when he bit her, because “all her blood had dried up long ago. She bled red dust. Not nice.”

     The repeated catchphrase throughout Morpurgo’s book is, “Home is home, and home is best,” not “there’s no place like home,” as some readers may expect. And Dorothy and Toto return to Kansas in the Wizard’s balloon – no heel-clicking magic here. So Morpurgo’s novel has its own take on Baum’s story. In some ways it is a trifle disappointing, with some of the magic of the original wrung out – for instance, the Wizard does not actually give the travelers amusing versions of the things for which they have journeyed to the Emerald City, but instead teaches them self-esteem and self-actualization, which under the circumstances amount to a rather poor substitute. But Morpurgo has fun with Toto’s personality, occasionally having him interact with his favorite puppy during the story: “Just you left awake, Tiny Toto. You’re my best listener, you always are.” And in Oz, Toto’s delight in getting fed comes through again and again, as when he mentions “the most sumptuous breakfast” at which “Lion had twenty green sausages, and I had six, which was quite enough for me.” This Morpurgo/Clark collaboration is no substitute for Baum’s original novel or, for that matter, for the most famous of the many films made from it. But it has pleasantries of its own, and the notion of telling this first and most famous Oz story from Toto’s viewpoint is a delicious one. Maybe not quite as delicious as the Emerald City’s green sausages, but then, what is?

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