The Silver Princess in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson – It’s the eightieth anniversary of the publication of this book, which I used as an excuse to give it a reread. This isn’t really one of my favorites, despite having some of my favorite characters, I think largely because it aged poorly. I won’t start by addressing the elephant in the room, which isn’t the same as the elephant in the book. It’s the last volume in what’s sort of an unofficial Kabumpo trilogy with Kabumpo in Oz and The Purple Prince of Oz. The first introduces the character and has him journey to find a bride for Prince Pompadore and save the Kingdom of Pumperdink. The second has him save Pumperdink again, this time accompanied by another young prince, Randy. And here, he accompanies Randy on a trip that has him get married. The Elegant Elephant is never really the main protagonist, but he’s larger than life in more ways than one. Randy’s love interest in this book is Planetty, the titular Silver Princess, who’s from a world called Anuther Planet and accompanied by her Thunder Colt Thun.
It’s sort of a science fiction element, although there’s very little science involved. The alien world of Anuther Planet is a gray place of metallic people and animals with beautiful forms, who are generated from vanadium springs. Vanadium, a metal with the atomic number twenty-three, was named after an alternate cognomen of the Norse goddess Freyja, and like her, Planetty is attractive but also tough, being very strong and carrying a staff that she can use to petrify enemies. She’s even referred to as a “war maiden” at one point. Randy falls for her immediately, and she returns his affections as she learns about the new world on which she’s found herself. I’m sure Randy being the first person she meets there is helpful in this, but hey, it’s an Oz book, so there are going to be coincidences.
What I think doesn’t work as well here is the plot. Thompson’s last few Oz books (not counting the two that were later published by the International Wizard of Oz Club) tended to have strong characters, and she’d generally improved in her writing style, but the plots were a little lazy. In all of the last four, the conflict isn’t introduced until a considerable part of the story has already passed, and it’s always an invasion. This time, the invasion involves a slave revolt, which is where the problematic aspect comes in. We’re told in Jack Pumpkinhead that the Red Jinn keeps slaves, explicitly said to be black. I guess it’s supposed to fit the Arabian theme of his country, but it’s pretty racist. Still, Thompson doesn’t exactly condone it, and the Jinn is more of an unpredictable character at that point. By the time of Silver Princess, he’s not only much friendlier, but also generally innocent; Ginger, who had earlier been afraid of Jinnicky’s temper, here says that the Jinn is “always kindly and unsuspecting.”
Yet he also seems to have no problem with enslaving people of a different race. Even that is somewhat complicated by the fact that, once Jinnicky takes back the throne, we’re told that “their hours were short, their wages high and each miner had his own cozy cottage and garden.” Does this mean they were paid despite being identified as slaves, or that Jinnicky ended their slavery? If the latter, it’s a rather offhand way of addressing a major shift in economic and human rights issues in his country, although perhaps such is typical of late-thirties Thompson. At the time I first read the book, I don’t think I was really aware of the myth, popular at the time Thompson wrote, that black people were happy as slaves (or, later, poor sharecroppers), and only thought they weren’t when stirred up by agitators. Unfortunately, the story fits this sort of narrative, with the slaves coming across as gullible, supporting a new regime when they were better off under the old one. The mastermind of the rebellion, Gludwig, is also black but presumably not a slave, as he’s the manager of the ruby mines and has his own mansion and money. So it’s complicated, but still pretty offensive no matter how you look at it.