When I was a child in the early '70s, one of the Big Three networks
aired the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz" with some regularity, about
once a year or so. I watched it every time it was on, captivated again
and again by the struggle between Dorothy's innocent "good" (ironic,
given Judy Garland's eventual reputation) and the absolute "evil" of
the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West.
In early junior high school, I discovered L. Frank Baum's whole blessed
series of Oz books and raced through them all. I decided that the
original creation was far superior to the movie - which I now own on
video, so it's still beloved to me - in delving deeper into the society
of Oz and depicting in loving detail the quirkier aspects of that
enchanted land. It occurs to me that Oz is a venerable ancestor of
Piers Anthony's Xanth, but that strays from the point at hand.
A few years ago, I picked up a brand-new hardcover by Gregory Maguire
called Wicked, purely on the basis of its subtitle: "The
Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." I started reading
and honestly could not stop, enchanted by Oz once again, and this time
from a vastly different point of view and of sympathy.
Wicked's flavor is the gothic freakishness of Carson McCullers
and Flannery O'Connor blended with liberal amounts of dark humor and
socio-political satire a la Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, seasoned
with honesty, sympathy and earnestness. It is the heretofore untold story of the
Wicked Witch of the West. In it we learn about
The infamous Dorothy is seen briefly in the prologue, but doesn't
appear in the story proper until the fifth and final part of the book.
Dorothy is depicted as a large-boned farm girl, a dull-witted but
well-intentioned sort; Toto is "merely annoying." If you rewatch the
movie, you'll grudgingly admit that this seemingly cruel
characterization is actually pretty on-the-mark as far as the motion
picture Dorothy goes.
- her name (Elphaba)
- her childhood (really weird parents and unfortunate skin)
- her sister (Nessarose, an armless conservative zealot who
will become Wicked Witch of the East and who will die when
Dorothy's Kansas house lands on her)
- her schoolgirl days (where she and Glinda the "Good" will
become reluctant pals)
- her politics (she becomes a freedom fighter, working with
an underground resistance movement to bring social rights
to the thinking Animals, among other things)
- her life's great sorrow, the loss of her one true love.
Kirkus Reviews said "Save a place on the shelf between Alice
and The Hobbit -- that spot is well-deserved." Wicked
does earn a spot on the shelves of classic fantasy, but so does it earn
a niche alongside the best modern literary fiction. Maguire has created
a truly great -- and flawed -- heroine in a novel that is a psychological
analysis on one of the most "evil" characters of the twentieth century.
I made this book my in-store staff recommendation twice when I was a bookseller, in hardcover
and paperback, and my evident love for Wicked caused
nearly half our store staff to read it for themselves. Two things we
all agreed on: Wicked is one hell of a good book, and
we will never look at Oz in the same way.