Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Was - by Geoff Ryman

My friend Brendan is very good at picking out books that he thinks I will like. When he recommended this one I asked if there were any librarians in it, and he said he thought maybe there were because one of the characters was doing a bit of research. As it turned out, this one has quite a few different references to libraries and librarians, but, unlike me, Brendan wasn't on the lookout for them when he read it.

This novel tells the "back story" of Dorothy Gael (yes, the one from the Wizard of Oz), who according to Ryman, bullied her classmates, and was sexually abused by Uncle Henry. It is also the story of Jonathan, who goes on a quest to find the "real Dorothy" in his last days on Earth, and Jonathan's therapist Bob, who actually knew "Dotty" before she died. There is also some of the story of Judy Garland's family, and the making  of The Wizard of Oz movie. It was very hard to tell how much was true and what wasn't. Fortunately the last pages of the book are a "Reality Check" in which Ryman sheds some light on some of the questions I had, as well as acknowledging the librarians who assisted with his own reearch.

There are about a dozen references to libraries or librarians in the book, and as Brendan recalled, some of them had to do with Jonathan's research, in which he visited libraries and public archives in California, and Kansas. We also learn that as a child Jonathan hated most books, and even "tore up a library book called Anatole." One of the few books he loved, of course, was The Wizard of Oz. I was disturbed to find out that up until about the 1960s Frank Baum's books were generally kept off of library shelves, mostly due to librarians' beliefs that the the fantasy aspect was unhealthy for children. The Oz books were not listed on recommended reading lists, nor were they mentioned in critcal works of children's literature. This article from the Chicago Tribune tells more.

I am always interested when I see references to the librarian stereotype. In describing Jonathan's ex-girlfriend Ryman simply says "She looked like a librarian....She was serious." There is no expansion in the description, Ryman is clearly sure, in the use of this simile, that readers will picture the same archetypical, bookish person. I wish I could become indignant about this, but sadly, I must admit that whenever I attend I librarian conference I am reminded that the stereotype is, all too often, deserved.

One of the books on my to-read list in What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, I learned from Was that an editorial of the same name was published in the late 1800s by William Allen White. Reading the description of "the bookroom" at Dorothy's school gave me cause to consider the question myself.

"There was one table and shelves of spare textbooks. Proud as they were of their schools, even the people of Kansas could not call this a library."

Brendan was right on recommending this one for me. I like a surreal novel, especially one with libraries. 

1 comment:

  1. Too bad those early librarian's did not have Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories." http://www.tolkien-online.com/on-fairy-stories.html