A review of The Master Key, An Electrical Fairy Tale by L Frank Baum (1901)

Following the Yellow Brick Road

Well, it’s been a while since I did an L Frank Baum review.  The last Oz book I reviewed was the first post-Baum Oz book The Royal Book of Oz (#15 in the series) back in September 2013.  I then reviewed Baum’s non-Oz The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus back in December 2013.  Unfortunately, now, I see I’d not done a Baum review in 2014.  And that’s a shame.  Really sorry about that.

So I thought it was time to check out another of Baum’s non-Oz tales.  There’s a short novel Baum wrote that always sounded interesting and has intrigued me ever since.  So I thought I’d do that book today.

In 1901, one year after Baum published the first Wizard of Oz book, he released the short novel The Master Key, An Electrical Fairy Tale.

frank-baum-the-master-key

The book was illustrated by Fanny Young Cory who also illustrated Baum’s The Enchanted Island of Yew in 1903.  It’s a short boy’s adventure novella with some early elements of science fiction.

The story concerns a young boy, Rob Joslyn, who likes to experiment with electrical devices.  He spends his time in his workshop creating electrical inventions that spread all throughout the house.  One night while tinkering with his switchboard, he is assaulted by a bright light and sees a being made entirely of brilliant light appear.  It’s the Demon of Electricity.  Apparently, Rob has touched the “Master Key” and has earned the right to command the Demon.  For this honor Rob will receive three gifts from the Demon for the next three weeks to total nine gifts.  Over the next few weeks Rob takes the gifts from the Demon and has several adventures all across the globe.

master key 09

The gifts that Rob receives are all based on electricity and are supposed to show Rob how electricity can be harnessed in nature to do wonderous things.  Rob receives a transportation device that uses electrical and magnetic energy to physically transport someone swiftly over great distances.  He also receives a tin of food tablets that provide all the nutrition a human body needs for 24 hours (that is somehow based on electricity).  He also receives glasses that read a person’s electrical aura to tell if they are good, evil, wise or kind and a small tube that shoots out an electrical signal that knocks a person unconscious for 1 hour.  Rob uses these gifts to travel across the globe and help out people like the Kings of England and France, two shipwrecked sailors and a group of middle eastern peoples in a war with each other.

It’s a fun, fanciful read.  Typical Baum.  Rob winds up getting into a lot of his mischief because he falls asleep at inopportune moments but he’s able to use the gifts and his own ingenuity to get out of the situations.  The story reminds me a lot of Aladdin with the Demon of Electricity as the genie and Rob as Aladdin.

Baum makes a few good predictions with his gifts.  Especially considering he was writing in 1901.  The electrical tube that incapacitates people for an hour is strikingly similar to a Tazer.  In a later passage, Baum comes very close to describing intellectual piracy with another gift the Demon bestows on Rob.  It’s a small device that can look in on any event that is happening throughout the world.  At one point Rob watches a brand new play being performed and is suddenly filled with guilt because he didn’t pay to see the performance.  Rob goes on to think that if these little devices become more common then people would sit at home to watch the performances and the actors would all starve to death.  Very prescient if you ask me, Mr Baum.

Fanny Cory’s illustrations are simple yet fit the story well. Below are two of the color illustrations. There are also numerous smaller black and white illustrations throughout the chapters. The picture on the left showcases the first time Rob uses the electrical transporter to fly away from his house in front of his family. The right picture shows Rob after encountering a tribe of cannibals on an island. Click the images to see them bigger.

master key 06 master key 04

I love the cover to the book, it has always intrigued me. It comes from an illustration on the inside. Here’s that illustration from inside the book.  It is the first time the Demon of Electricity appears to Rob in his workshop.

master key 05

Considering the Demon is the main thrust of the story, I’m surprised there are not really any big illustrations of him. He is only showcased a few times in some of the smaller black and white chapter drawings.

master key 08 master key 07

Overall, yes, I can recommend this book. It has the typical Baum charm and is fun to read. Very much a journey story where the protagonist learns a lesson and essentially figures out that he was better off before the fantastical events of the book started.

The book is in the public domain and can be read in its entirety here.

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2 Responses to “A review of The Master Key, An Electrical Fairy Tale by L Frank Baum (1901)”

  1. Great review. I have never even heard of this book before, but will definitely look to purchase a copy.

  2. I remember when I read The Master Key! My *mother* checked it out of a *real library* for me! OMfg memorysurge.

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