In 1939, Maud Gage Baum met with Judy Garland on the set of the now classic The Wizard of Oz. The seventy-eight year old widow of the Oz author immediately felt drawn to the young star, particularly after hearing her rendition of the iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. From that bit of music, their stories unfold as Maud recounts growing up as the daughter of a major suffragette and her eventual marriage to and life with the man behind the curtain all while Judy balances her blooming career on a tumultuous set. From Maud’s past struggling in the prairies of South Dakota to Judy’s present dealing with a predatory director, their stories weave around each other, all while Maud tries to protect Judy and, in turn, Dorothy.
Author Elizabeth Letts works some remarkable magic by making Maud’s story take center stage in a compelling way. This is not to suggest that Maud Gage isn’t a great character in her own right. She is. The daughter of an important suffragette, she could refer to Susan B. Anthony as Auntie. She attended Cornell in one of the first co-ed classes in the school’s history. And, of course, she inspired, in some capacity, most of the book The Wizard of Oz.
However, even with all of that, her story has to compete with the dual narrative of Judy Garland and the making of the movie. Characters like Ray Bolger and Louis B. Mayer crop up regularly, and major fans of Oz will most likely be looking out for how these individuals are portrayed. Maud has to deal with focus being pulled away from her simply because she’s (unjustifiably) less famous in the movie’s lore.
But that doesn’t happen. As the book chronicles Maud’s movement from under her famous mother to college and the prairie and beyond, she commands attention. It’s easy to understand how her passion and drive would ultimately inspire the idealistic dreamer that was L. Frank Baum to pen his most famous work, even when her confidence in his success was shaken.
When the narrative shifts back to the movie studio and Maud’s mission to protect Judy, there’s almost a pull to keep the story going in the past. It becomes too interesting listening to Maud deal with her ever-strained relationship with her sister or her desire for a daughter. Yet Letts masterfully weaves these two stories together by slapping on a bit of Hollywood veneer, and soon it’s just as compelling reading about a Scarecrow smoking a cigarette while on break from filming. Of course, much like The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t have worked without Maud, these scenes also would have suffered without her parallel from the past. They’re gorgeously linked.
Above all, it’s the tension of the piece that’s brilliant, which is so hard to get right in historical fiction. Yes, the book eventually gets written. Yes, the movie eventually gets made. However, much like the many retellings of the doomed Titanic (spoiler: it sinks), it’s not about the ending— it’s about the journey. This one just happens to take place on a long, bumpy road of yellow brick.
Judy Garland was a huge talent who suffered for her big break. Maud Gage was a wonderful woman who sacrificed immensely for her husband’s creativity. Elizabeth Letts has created a deeply satisfying work by exploring their stories together.
Title: Finding Dorothy
Author: Elizabeth Letts
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: February 12, 2019
Classification: Historical Fiction
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.