- Our Landlady
During his writing career, L. Frank Baum created a number of memorable female characters. There can be little doubt that Dorothy Gale from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, ranks among the best known female characters in all of American literature. Baum’s other Oz books also featured intriguing female characters, including Princess Ozma from The Marvelous Land of Oz, Polychrome from The Road to Oz, and the Patchwork Girl from The Patchwork Girl of Oz.
Baum’s interest in female characters can be traced back to his short-lived career as a newspaper publisher in Aberdeen, South Dakota. From January 1890 to March 1891, Baum published a weekly paper called the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Every issue, except for those from the paper’s final two months, featured a column titled “Our Landlady.” Baum filled this column with the adventures and caustic observations of Mrs. Sairy Ann Bilkins, a fictional landlady who runs a boarding house. The most popular feature of Baum’s paper, this column greatly amused the citizens of Aberdeen. For about a year, Mrs. Bilkins was a household name in Aberdeen, but with the demise of the paper, Mrs. Bilkins fell into obscurity. Now, well over a century since Baum wrote his last “Our Landlady” column, Mrs. Bilkins has resurfaced. She owes her rescue to Nancy Tystad Koupal, the Director of the Research and Publishing Program of the South Dakota Historical Society. In Our Landlady, Koupal has collected and carefully annotated all of Baum’s columns about Mrs. Bilkens.
Although Mrs. Bilkins has comical qualities, she is not simply a caricature of a frontier woman. She is a complex character who cares about her boarders, cherishes her independence, and feels proud of the town of Aberdeen and the brand-new state of South Dakota. She takes definite stands on various controversial issues, such as women’s suffrage, temperance, and organized religion. Her views generally parallel Baum’s, but she is a bit more flamboyant than her creator.
Baum did not write these columns for children, but they have significant connections to the children’s books for which he eventually became famous. The Mrs. Bilkins columns reflect Baum’s emerging interest in feminism. When he later wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he drew on his feminist background in creating the character of Dorothy and in envisioning the largely matriarchal world of Oz. The aspects of these columns that deal with life on the Dakota prairie relate to some of the animal fairy tales that he later wrote, such as “The Discontented Gopher.” [End Page 451] Another intriguing connection between these columns and Baum’s children’s books concerns Baum’s use of fantasy. Several of the columns incorporate fantasy elements, including time travel and anthropomorphic machines. One of the final columns, for example, features a magical machine that Mrs. Bilkins calls an “automatick stenogripher.” This machine carries on conversations with people and often seems a bit arrogant. Many years later, Baum reworked this material when he included a magical phonograph in The Patchwork Girl of Oz.
In addition to reprinting Baum’s columns, Koupal provides a scholarly introduction in which she discusses Baum’s life in South Dakota. Baum arrived in Aberdeen in the fall of 1888 and stayed until the spring of 1891, after which he moved to Chicago. Koupal is the first scholar to do justice to this period in Baum’s life. She not only covers the details of Baum’s Dakota years, but she also provides the historical context that modern readers need in order to understand why Baum moved to Aberdeen, why he found it so difficult to make a living there, and, finally, why he decided to leave the town, despite having formed an emotional attachment to the place.
For readers who are interested in the influences that shaped the writing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Koupal’s collection of Baum’s “Our Landlady” columns is a valuable resource. For readers who are interested in meeting an eccentric frontier woman, Koupal’s collection...