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Aunt Jane’s Nieces

June 6, 2017

So hey, I’ve spent much of the last month on the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series, written by L. Frank Baum under his Edith Van Dyne pseudonym. It’s always interesting to me to see how far momentum will carry me into a series, because it doesn’t usually get me all the way to the end. I got bogged down about halfway in, but I pushed through, mostly because I never really want to come back to these books.

I have to wonder if Baum purposely lifted the plot of Aunt Jane’s Nieces from Laura E. Richards’ Three Margarets, which also involves three teenage girls being summoned to meet an unknown relative. When both also involve an Uncle John who initially misrepresents himself, they start to look suspiciously similar. Richards’ book is substantially better, and in fact reading Aunt Jane’s Nieces mostly just makes me want to reread all of the Hildegarde-Margaret books.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the work of someone I like much, much less that Laura E. Richards. Our three nieces are, in age order:

  • Louise Merrick: pretty, with good, if insincere, manners. She and her mother are living off her father’s life insurance, trying to make it look like they’re rich so Louise can marry well before the money runs out.
  • Patsy Doyle: lovable, redheaded, Irish. You know the type. She lives in a tenement with her father, formerly a soldier and currently a bookkeeper.
  • Beth De Graf: beautiful and practical and a little bit sulky. Her father is a music teacher and neither of her parents appear to have any good qualities. She cares about them as little as they care about her.

They’re summoned to the home of Aunt Jane Merrick, who lives on an estate left to her by her fiancé. She’s not very nice. The nieces, aside from Patsy, aren’t very nice. Kenneth, the orphaned nephew of Aunt Jane’s dead fiancé, isn’t very nice because he’s never learned how to interact with other human beings.

Then John Merrick, Jane’s long-lost eldest brother, shows up. He’s very nice, and very shabby, and after Jane dies we learn that he’s a multimillionaire who wants to spend the next nine books taking his nieces on exotic vacations.

In Aunt Jane’s Nieces Abroad, Uncle John takes the girls to Italy, where they witness the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius and tangle with some brigands. Beth gets to shoot at the brigands. Beth is my favorite, if I have one. And Baum is entertainingly cynical about the tourists’ behavior, although I can’t always tell if he approves of it or not.

In Aunt Jane’s Nieces at Millville, they spend the summer on a farmhouse Uncle John has accepted in payment of a debt. Think Six Girls and Bob, but less good, and more unkind about their country neighbors.

In Aunt Jane’s Nieces at Work, the three girls run their friend Kenneth’s campaign to be elected State Senator. His platform is that advertisements are ugly, which is fair, but I sort of felt more sympathy for the farmers who wanted to make some extra money by letting people paint signs on their barns and fences. Also there’s a missing local girl to be tracked down.

Aunt Jane’s Nieces in Society lets the girls stay put in New York for once. They make their debut in society mostly to gratify the ambition of Louise’s mother, but in another author’s hands the situation probably would have been fun. Here, it drags until Louise is kidnapped. Louise gets her romance in this book, and it is an exceedingly unromantic one. Sometimes the relationships in these books make me wonder if Baum ever felt warmly towards another person.

Aunt Jane’s Nieces and Uncle John features a road trip out west, a girl invalid in search of her uncle, the absence of Louise, and L. Frank Baum being gross about Native Americans.

In Aunt Jane’s Nieces on Vacation, the crew returns to the farmhouse at Millville and starts a daily paper. This is one of the better ones–it’s always nice when the girls actually have something to do. Also, I liked the alcoholic girl newspaper artist Hetty Hewitt and the amnesiac jack-of-all-trades Thursday Smith.

In Aunt Jane’s Nieces on the Ranch, we seem to skip forward two years without any of the characters aging–but then, they haven’t aged consistently anyway. Louise has been twenty for two years, I guess, and her cousins and uncle come out to visit her and fawn over her baby on her husband’s California ranch. This is the most ultra-racist of the books. They’re all kind of…well, Baum was only really interested in white people. But this book seems to be mostly an excuse to repeatedly tell us that Mexican people are lazy and stupid. And that they talk to each other in heavily accented English, for some reason.

Next (and almost last!) is Aunt Jane’s Nieces Out West, in which the girls hang out in Hollywood and make friends with a pair of actresses almost certainly based on Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Also there’s a mysterious young man who may or may not be a jewel thief. I almost enjoyed the plot in this one, which, for this series, is saying a lot.

Finally, there’s Aunt Jane’s Nieces in the Red Cross. Uncle John fixes up a boat as a hospital so Patsy and Beth and their friend Maud can go play at being nurses. That’s not entirely fair–all three prove to be good nurses, because that’s how fiction works–but this book makes me hostile. There are a lot of reasons, but here’s a big one: the whole group of Americans treats working for the Red Cross as an interesting few months’ diversion.

Are these books really bad, or did I spend too much time on them and resent them for it? I don’t know. At this point, I’m not sure I care.

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11 comments

  1. Wow! That’s quite a saga there. Unless there are still more books in the series, it’s interesting that it’s allowed to end with two of the girls still unmarried / unattached – usually that’s authorial plot gold :-)


    • I’m pretty sure that this is the entire series. And yeah, that would have surprised me at the beginning, but by the end it made sense. I don’t think L.Frank Baum had a single spark of of romance in him.


  2. *applause* Congrats on making it all the way through and taking one for the team!


    • Thanks! If this stands as a warning to others I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.


  3. I had a Baum readthrough a number of years ago and very dimly remember half-liking half-loathing the war-tourism of the volunteer medical yacht. On the one hand, the US wasn’t in the war yet and plenty of people were doing just-regular tourism and outlandishly expensive things, and this is at least sort of helping/contributing? On the other hand, “let’s go get involved in someone else’s war for fun and adventure and hijinks!”… ugh.

    Wikipedia tells me that there are two different versions of the book, though, one printed in 1915 and one in 1918, and now I’m curious as to how extensively they’re revised. (Wikipedia: the second version was issued “with a darker treatment of the subject”) But I’m not sure I’m *quite* curious enough to read the book again. Twice.

    So yes. Thanks for taking one for the team. :-)


    • Hmm. It looks like Gutenberg has the 1915. I’m interested in what might’ve changed, but, yeah, probably not enough to put myself through that book again.

      I think part of what makes this one feel so icky to me is Uncle John’s entitled attitude. Baum can talk about how humble he is as much as he wants, but John Merrick genuinely thinks there’s something wrong if people aren’t bending over backwards to be helpful to him. Maybe my outlook is skewed by reading so many WWI books where the characters behave selflessly? But Baum’s characters seem to do good things for others chiefly for the pleasure of patting themselves on the back about it afterwards.


      • In poking around for a 1918 text (thinking that one might be able to do a simple text-file compare to highlight the parts that are different), I discovered that Wikipedia also has a fairly extensive page just for that book, which has substantially more information about the revisions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aunt_Jane's_Nieces_in_the_Red_Cross#The_1918_revision) So, there is that if you are curious.

        Yes, there’s a big difference between doing good things because this is the right thing to do (or even doing good things because you *like* doing good things) vs. doing good things for the public and internal pats-on-the-back you expect to get out of the situation. But presumably a lot of motives were mixed at the time, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing to portray characters who were doing “good things” for selfish motives, necessarily – but to expect you to like/admire them for it, eugh. Nope.


        • Wow, the revisions are a lot more extensive than I would have thought. The parts about making it favor the Allies more make sense–the friendliness towards the Germans in the original really surprised me.

          Now that I think about it, the romance stuff makes sense, too–probably Baum didn’t know when he first wrote the book that it would be the last one, but when he revisited it he wanted to wrap things up properly.


          • I entirely lost interest when I couldn’t find a 1918 copy online free; some books are worth a $4 used copy (or more!) or trying to ILL them, but… uh, not this one?


  4. I echo the others who have said “thank you for taking one for the team.” You know how much I ADORE the Margaret books. Jane Abbott also has a book with a similar plot line called “Harriet’s Choice.” And now I don’t have to read any of the Aunt Jane’s Nieces books!


    • I think you or someone else told me about Harriet’s Choice at some point, but I haven’t come across it yet.

      The more I think about it, the more I think no one should have to read the Aunt Jane’s Nieces books. I’ve never read the Oz books, but from these I have a hard time understanding why Baum is remembered and Richards isn’t.



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