Although we came to discover Matilda Joslyn Gage from different angles, I’m grateful that my search led me to Elizabeth Letts’ latest novel, Finding Dorothy.
I set out to discover Matilda Joslyn Gage after I read of a phenomenon called the ‘Matilda Effect’, the focus of my recent post: Matilda Joslyn Gage: In Her Name.
Elizabeth Letts explains her path to Gage in the Afterword in Finding Dorothy:
“About six or seven years ago, I was reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz aloud to my son when I found myself wondering about the author. Why was I so familiar with his creations yet knew nothing about the man who had created them? And then when I read about him, I suddenly felt as if I understood why this man, in particular, had created one of American literature’s most spunky and enduring female characters”(343).
Whereas my path led from Maltida to her daughter, Maud who married L. Frank Baum, Letts’ went from L. Frank Baum to his wife Maud and her mother, Matilda.
However we arrived at discovering Matilda, I’m so happy that this novel exists! Letts’ book is entertaining and informative, delivering true-life stories about amazing people, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage. Few know of this woman because of her being erased from history. Historical fiction can be an ideal way to recognize those who have been sidelined and to bring critical figures to a larger, broader audience than some other vehicles. For this I am extremely grateful.
As Letts explains:
“Maud was the daughter of one of the nineteenth century’s most outspoken advocates for the rights of women. In 1876, Maud’s mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, helped to pen a Declaration of the Rights of Women and marched, uninvited, onto the dais of America’s centennial celebration to hand the document to a startled Senator John Ferry, then acting vice president, with her close friends Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at her side. Matilda fought for women’s access to higher education, helping to assure her daughter Maud’s place as one of Cornell University’s first female undergraduates. And yet Maud chose to defy her formidable mother by running away with an itinerant theater man named L. Frank Baum, demonstrating the very independence of spirit that her mother had taught her”(344).
The story threads in Finding Dorothy all involve Maud: her growing up with a larger-than-life mother, she and Frank’s life together, and, after the passing of both her mother and husband, her presence on the set of the making of the motion picture The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, where she works to protect both the integrity of her husband’s story and a young actress, Judy Garland.
Maud and Frank’s partnership was adventurous and challenging, the joining of a dreamer and a doer: the creative who could captivate with a story, and the one whose job it was to keep a household from running amuck.
Maud’s powerhouse mother, not originally in favor of her daughter’s choice, comes to see what Frank has to offer. A visionary and writer herself, Matilda detects the same in Frank and is the one who encourages him to write down the stories he tells his sons. This leads to L. Frank Baum’s wildly successful Oz series.
In this passage, Frank tells Maud that he has heeded his mother-in-law’s advice:
“You remember how your mother always encouraged me to write? ‘Write those stories down, Frank Baum! ‘You remember how she always used to say that?”
Maud nodded, barely, keeping her eyes fixed on a crack in the plaster shaped like a flower that ran across a seam of the ceiling.
“Well, I’ve named the girl in my story Dorothy.”
Maud rolled over and stared at him. “Our Dorothy?”
“It’s a story about hope. It’s a story about knowing that there is always someplace out there that is better. Dorothy is a Gage girl, like you, like your mother, like Magdalena. Brave, tenacious, tough”(314).
This hope, this believing there’s a better tomorrow is a powerful message throughout Finding Dorothy, as it was throughout the lives of the people the story is based upon.
But believing in a better tomorrow doesn’t make the challenges of today any easier, especially for those who dedicate their lives to fighting for something much bigger than themselves, living a lifestyle that forces them to make choices and sacrifices they then have to live with.
In this conversation between mother and daughter, Matilda expresses regret at letting another daughter, Julia, down. Busy fighting for human rights and women’s suffrage, she was not there when Julia birthed her second baby, one that did not survive for long.
“I thought that the fate of all womankind was more important than the fate of one individual – my own daughter. I thought it was the duty of we women who were fighting the fight to stay strong.” Now Matilda was openly sobbing. “I didn’t understand that you can’t always just ‘stay strong,’ that sometimes the conditions we are fighting are greater than our individual abilities. If that ignorant back-country nurse hadn’t told Julia to dry up her milk, that baby might still be alive.”
“Mother! You don’t know that! You mustn’t be so hard on yourself.”
“No, Maud. I had to learn something you always knew instinctively. The fight for all women has got to begin with the women closest to you.”
“No mother is perfect,” Maud said. “I’ve always been proud to be your daughter.”
“But all that I’ve given up…and so little to show for it,” Matilda said.
“So little to show for it, Mother? Not so! The day will come when you will be proven right. Your daughters, or at least your grandchildren, will be alive to see that day, and we will thank you.”
Matilda was looking at Maud searchingly, as if hoping her daughter could answer her deepest fears. “And that will be enough?”
Maud stood and enfolded her mother’s frail shoulders in her arms, catching her faint scent of mint and lavender. “Oh, Mother dear, of course it will be much more than enough”(300).
Toward the end of the story, Maud pays homage to her mother who fought so hard for her vision of women’s overall equality, including the right to vote:
“Twenty-two years had passed between Matilda’s death and the day when women at long last won the right to vote. August 18, 1920. Maud had thought of Matilda all that day, and each year after as she cast her ballot. Matilda had fought her entire life for something that had not come to pass until after she was gone”(323).
As readers, we’re let into many of Maud’s relationships including her relationship with Dorothy, Judy Garland, a young woman who has the right to vote, but has little agency over her own life. There’s not a lot recorded about Maud and Judy’s actual interactions, so Letts is left to imagine this relationship more than the others.
On the movie set, Maud works to retain a semblance of her husband’s intention, to stick to his story in ways that she knows are important. Along with this, Maud can see what is happening to Judy, the chipping away at a girl who has become a product.
Maud, blessed with four sons, always longed for a daughter and this Dorothy her husband created feels in a way hers. For good reason, Maud is extremely concerned about the welfare and treatment of Judy and tries to intervene.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Maud asked.
Judy frowned. “It’s the diet pills. They make me shaky, and I can’t sleep…If I can’t sleep for a few days, they put me in the infirmary and give me pills to help. The studio doctors can do anything with pills – speed you up, slow you down.” She sounded half-bored, as if all this pill taking were in the natural order of things.
Maud reached a hand out and placed it on the girl’s arm. “Forgive me for prying, but does your mother know about this?”
“Ethel?” Judy said. “She’s the one who told the studio doctors to do it. She calls them my bolts and jolts.”
Maud thought of her own mother – her horror of patent medicines, her belief that they were a scourge for women. And she thought of Julia, and the medicine that had ruled her life.
“I would recommend that you be cautious,” Maud said. “Medicines have a way of exerting power that you would not expect.”
Judy shrugged. “I really don’t get that much choice in the matter.”
“Let me tell you something right now. You may be young and you may be a girl, but I pray that you will remember that you always have a choice in any matter.”
Judy sighed. “It sure doesn’t feel like that”(274).
And indeed, knowing what we do about Judy Garland’s life, between addiction and fame, perhaps she didn’t have choices.
A short book review in the December 2018 issue of the Library Journal reports, “Letts…once again crafts a tale of fortitude and triumph over adversity. Some may find it leans toward sentimentality, but readers looking for an inspiring true story will be delighted”(73).
Wherever somewhere over the rainbow may be for you, it will seem a little closer after reading Elizabeth Letts’ Finding Dorothy.
Elizabeth Letts is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2020
Letts, Elizabeth. Finding Dorothy. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.
Library Journal, December 2018.