Before the Umbrella

Much of the plot of Speedy in Oz takes place on Umbrella Island, a land that flies through the air under the power of a magical umbrella. We’re told that this was not always the case, however. According to Waddy, the wizard who rigged up the umbrella in the first place, they’d only been flying for about seven years by the time of the story. In a country where people “go on for centuries,” as stated later in the book (p. 154) by the royal counselor Kachewka, that must seem like no time at all. The flying has been pretty well ingrained in the culture, however, as demonstrated by the mentions of it in the national anthem. So what was the island like before being able to fly, and how did becoming airborne change it?

Waddy himself addresses these questions to some extent in his speech to the giant Loxo. The island’s original location was “seventy leagues from the mainland of Ev,” and close enough to Pingaree from Rinkitink to maintain regular trade with it. We’re told at the beginning of Rinkitink that the pearl-rich island only trades with the Kingdom of Rinkitink, but I suppose this could have changed over time. Anyway, if you look at the map from the Tik-Tok endpapers, you’ll notice that the Nonestic Ocean is only shown in one small corner, and Ruth Plumly Thompson seems to have initially made an effort to fit all new islands she introduced into that one bit of ocean. She decides to go off the map a bit by the time of Captain Salt, but was apparently still hoping to squeeze everything in when she wrote Speedy.

While still a sealocked nation, the main industry of the island was the raising of silkworms and manufacture of silk fabrics. The suggestion is that the climate was much like that of China, and the people dressed accordingly, in loose blouses and wide silk trousers, with braids in their hair.

During the island’s flights, however, Waddy introduced fauna from other lands and climes, leading to “rich and tropical” foliage. The wizard also planted the umbrella trees found all over the island, which makes me wonder whether it was even called Umbrella Island prior to the flight upgrade.

For what it’s worth, umbrella trees are also mentioned as growing in the blue forest in Ojo (see p. 147/ch. 8), and David Perry picks a parasol for his grandmother from one in the Winkie Country in Enchanted Island.

Even if umbrella trees were only a recent introduction to Umbrella Island, however, a silk-producing country might still have been known for its parasols. Did Waddy use an umbrella as a means of locomotion because umbrellas were already popular on the island, or did the culture change to reflect the wizard’s invention? Thompson and her characters never really tell us.

As for fauna, the pun-filled nature of the Ozian universe makes it pretty much necessary that Umbrella Island would have umbrella birds, which are actually native to Central and South America, but a Nonestic umbrella bird isn’t necessarily the same as a mundane one.

We’re also told that the island is home to forty-six cows, thirty-seven sheep, twenty-two horses, a herd of goats, and a talking cat.

John R. Neill’s picture on p. 35 also shows a pig, a goose, a chicken, a squirrel, a frog, a dog, and a mouse.

How many of these species are native to the country and how many were introduced from other lands is something else we don’t really know. In the course of the story, Umbrella Island also acquires an animated dinosaur skeleton, but he’s actually American (or, from his own perspective, Virtulan).

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3 Responses to Before the Umbrella

  1. vilajunkie says:

    *facepalm* Oh jeez, Thompson and her stereotypes about China…. I seriously doubt many Chinese dressed anything like how she describes by the time she wrote the book. Besides, I think that look was specific to certain classes and cultures; China has at ;east 55 surviving tribes or “races”, and not all of them resemble the Han Chinese we’re so familiar with. Eh, not surprised, but statements about racial stereotypes in the Oz books makes some of them embarrassing to read these days, and I think Thompson was more stereotypical than Baum was.

    I love Umbrella Birds (the real ones), but I haven’t seen much about them in ages. I had a picture book/animal alphabet book as a kid with the Umbrella Bird for U.

    • Nathan says:

      In fairness to Thompson, she didn’t really dwell on the similarities between the Umbrella Island and China. As far as I can remember, there’s just the one reference to an Umbrellian man’s single braid looking “like a Chinaman’s queue.”

      I think umbrella birds have gotten a fair amount of press simply because they start with a rarely used letter. Same way with the xerus (an African ground squirrel), I suppose.

  2. Pingback: Please Share My Umbrella | VoVatia

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