So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

John Dough and the Cherub

John Dough and the Cherub by L. Frank Baum
Published in 2008 by Hungry Tiger, a press that publishes quality editions of the works of L. Frank Baum, this book brings together L. Frank Baum's original 1906 text and all of John R. Neill's original illustrations with a new 13 page foreword by J. L. Bell, editor of the International Wizard of Oz Club's magazine Oziana. Also included is a one page note on the making of this new edition by David Maxine of Hungry Tiger Press. This is a loving recreation of a book that, while in the Public Domain, has been out of print for a long time.

J. L. Bell tells us in the foreword that the book was originally commissioned for serialization by Ladies' Home Journal, the largest subscription magazine in the world at the time. However, when Baum submitted his first four chapters based on a children's story "The Gingerbread Boy" about a pastry that comes to life and runs away rather than be eaten by everyone he meets, the editor decided to reject the story. The story published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1875 comes to an abrupt end when the pastry is eaten by a fox.

While the original story does not explain how the gingerbread comes to life, Baum has an Arab named Ali Dubh who is being pursued by three other Arabs, visit an American bake shop in his neighborhood and ask the baker's wife to hide a golden flask that contains The Great Elixir, the Water of Life, that his pursuers seek. In return he offers her a silver flask that will cure her rheumatism. The woman mixes up the two flasks and pours the Water of Life into a large bowl of water which her husband, unaware of its significance, uses to fashion a life-sized gingerbread man. Infused with The Great Elixir, the baker's creation that he named John Dough comes to life and begins to stroll through the town.

While all who meet him think of him as food, John Dough sees himself as a living being with a life of his own. This creates even more existential conflict when it becomes obvious to him and others that anyone who does eat him will not only fill their stomach but gain the benefits of the Water of Life and become stronger and more vibrant. Ali Dubh pays the baker for the gingerbread man and starts off in pursuit of his property. To escape capture John Dough catches a ride on a 4th of July rocket and lands days later on the Isle of Phreex in what Baum will in a a later book call the Nonestic Ocean. It is the body of water that surrounds the land that contains his fairyland of Oz.

When John Dough lands on the Isle of Phreex, a place inhabited by unusual people, it appears he has found a home where he can be accepted and makes friends with Chick the Cherub, an Incubator Baby who has grown up on the isle without parents. No one seems to know Chick's gender making the Cherub gender queer in today's terminology, a character that does not conform to either male or female gender identification. J. L. Bell in the foreword tells of a contest where the publisher would reward the reader who submitted the best reason Chick was a boy or a girl.

However, John and Chick are not safe and Ali Dubh is in hot pursuit. Does John Dough get eaten or allow himself to be eaten? Can you guess Chick's gender? All the while Baum has his characters on an island hopping adventure as they seek safety and a home. This book has many features of his American fairytale series of stories, where he tries to bring the magic of fairytales to everyday American settings, and it has the features of a minor Oz story in that it also takes place in the magical lands surrounding Oz, but without any of the main Ozian characters. I like it because it raises ethical questions about owning and eating living creatures and takes a refreshing look at gender identity. The book will appeal to Baum's fans and deserves reading because of the issues it addresses.


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