Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Lion's Heart Disease

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Lion's Heart Disease

Article excerpt

There once was a woman in Poland who had my very name-well, she was Stefania instead of Stefanie Wortman-and she lived in one of darkest corners of the most grotesque war. When she came out on the other side of that horror, she became a collector of childrens stories. She wrote feminist scholarship on books for young girls. She translated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She was not a storyteller but a lover and an interpreter of stories, a theorist of what they meant to children, and a vehicle for passing them on.

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland plays Dorothy Gale, but in Frank Baum's book the girl has no last name. She is only Dorothy, and after the cyclone sweeps across the plains, she waits in the farmhouse, kept floating in the air, for hours and hours. Eventually she stops being scared and just feels lonely and then bored, and then she lies down on her bed and falls asleep. When she wakes up she is among the Munchkins, who dress all in blue. She also meets the Good Witch, who dresses in white. Dorothy's blue-and-white gingham dress seems auspicious to everyone in this land of dreamlike symbolism.

Oz is surrounded on all sides by desert. It is not a civilized country like Kansas; witches and wizards still work their effects. When Dorothy cries about losing her home, all the Munchkins begin to cry with her, not because they understand what she has lost but purely out of fellow feeling.

On the last day of February 2009,1 received an e-mail from an unfamiliar address with the subject line "About another Stefania." The e-mail writer, a man from Poland named Marcin Otto, had been searching the internet for a "very dear lady" he remembered from childhood. When he found me instead and noticed that I was a writer, he thought I might be interested in hearing more about her. Though I was skeptical (Was it going to turn out that he needed help getting funds out of some foreign bank?), I had to e-mail him back to ask for more information. For one thing, I had been writing a poem about Marie Curie and fantasizing about traveling to Warsaw and Krakow, and this coincidence was somehow persuasive. Besides, though brief the e-mail seemed to convey a genuine interest in the lost woman, and I found endearing this attempt to find her or, failing that, to tell someone about her. Still, I wondered what Marcin Otto would want from me when I did respond-whether he just wanted someone to hear him or whether it was something different.

The opening of Baum's book is as bleak as the black-and-white opening of the film would have us believe. He suggests the farm's isolation by pointing out how far the lumber for the house had to be hauled onto the Kansas plains. Even catching a glimpse of a hook-nosed bicycling neighbor might be a relief in this waste prairie. Baum is relentless in describing everything in view-from the ground Dorothy walks on to her aunt's oncepretty face-as grey. When Dorothy finds herself lost in Oz she worries that Aunt Em, assuming her young niece is dead, will have to put on mourning. Dorothy grimly acknowledges, "unless the crops are better this year than they were last, I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford" the new set of clothes.

Even in the strange new world of Oz, things are more complicated for this Dorothy than for the one in the film. One by one she almost loses her traveling companions-the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion. Tiny animals like birds and mice have to rescue them from a stream or a field of narcotic flowers. Their motivations for reaching the City of Emeralds remain the same, but there is more debate over the relative merits of thought and feeling and which is more necessary to life. The scarecrow, who has surprisingly astute moments given his lack of brains, wonders whether the lion's cowardice is rooted in some "heart disease," as if in this fantasyland, pain and fear might be reduced to medical problems with scientific solutions.

About two weeks after I wrote back to Marcin, he sent me, much to my surprise, a PowerPoint presentation. …

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