Oklahoma Tornado Recalls Dorothy’s

W. W. Denslow, "Wonderful Wizard of Oz"

W. W. Denslow, “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

The horrendous damage visited upon Oklahoma by the recent tornado brings to mind literature’s most famous tornado, which is the one that carries Dorothy to the Land of Oz. L. Frank Baum, who saw the country ravaged by drought and depression from his vantage point of South Dakota in the 1890’s, describes the tornado (he calls it a cyclone) striking a landscape that is barren in every sense of the word. Here’s the environment that Dorothy grows up in:

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

And here’s the tornado striking. One difference is that, because the ground in Oklahoma is so hard, people often don’t have the kind of basement shelters that Dorothy’s family does :

From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm. There now came a sharp whistling in the air from the south, and as they turned their eyes that way they saw ripples in the grass coming from that direction also.

Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up.

“There’s a cyclone coming, Em,” he called to his wife. “I’ll go look after the stock.” Then he ran toward the sheds where the cows and horses were kept.

Aunt Em dropped her work and came to the door. One glance told her of the danger close at hand.

“Quick, Dorothy!” she screamed. “Run for the cellar!”

Toto jumped out of Dorothy’s arms and hid under the bed, and the girl started to get him. Aunt Em, badly frightened, threw open the trap door in the floor and climbed down the ladder into the small, dark hole. Dorothy caught Toto at last and started to follow her aunt. When she was halfway across the room there came a great shriek from the wind, and the house shook so hard that she lost her footing and sat down suddenly upon the floor.

Then a strange thing happened.

The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.

The north and south winds met where the house stood, and made it the exact center of the cyclone. In the middle of a cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather.

It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.

Toto did not like it. He ran about the room, now here, now there, barking loudly; but Dorothy sat quite still on the floor and waited to see what would happen.

Of the many stories of the Oklahoma tornado, here’s one reported in The New Yorker about a woman having her dog torn from her arms as her home takes a direct hit, only to miraculously find it again afterwards.  It’s almost a version of what happens with Dorothy and Toto:

Once Toto got too near the open trap door, and fell in; and at first the little girl thought she had lost him. But soon she saw one of his ears sticking up through the hole, for the strong pressure of the air was keeping him up so that he could not fall. She crept to the hole, caught Toto by the ear, and dragged him into the room again, afterward closing the trap door so that no more accidents could happen.

Dorothy, of course, ends up in the colorful Oz that MGM captured so well in the 1939 film. Here’s Baum’s description of what Dorothy sees:

 The cyclone had set the house down very gently–for a cyclone–in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, gray prairies.

May a similar brightness enter the lives of the Oklahoma survivors after they dig out of their ruins and mourn their dead.

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  • Jim Meadows

    It seems fitting that Barbara Garcia’s little dog who was lost and found in the rubble left by the May Oklahoma tornado appears to be the same or similar breed of terrier depicted by illustrator W.W. Denslow for Dorothy’s dog Toto in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I don’t think L. Frank Baum ever specified the breed. And when Toto returned in “The Road to Oz”, Baum’s new illustrator John R. Neill chose a different breed of terrier in his illustrations. But I think Barbara Garcia’s dog resembles Denslow’s vision of Toto.

  • Robin Bates

    Very interesting, Jim. I always assume Scottish terrier just because we had one growing up.

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