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October 21, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 21, 2008 |

There’s a bumper sticker that reminds me of Gregory Maguire’s particular oeuvre of literature. It’s generally found on the backs of cars papered with so many other stickers that it appears the entire rear-end is being held together by vehicular decoration. Stickers that read “COEXIST,” “My other car is a broom,” and “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.” I’m thinking of the bumper sticker that proclaims “EVE WAS FRAMED.”

Maguire’s successful career has been based on his knack for taking the vilest villains of well known, traditional literature and giving them a soul and a credible history. He posits that these evil, heartless characters were just misunderstood and maligned. They’ve had horrid childhoods, tortured adolescences, disappointments, failures, cataclysmic losses. Those nasty villains, why, they aren’t that different from the rest of us! Except maybe having crappy skin as a teenager and getting one’s heart stomped on freshman year in college doesn’t always lead to taking up magic and recruiting a flying monkey army to do your bidding. This is where Maguire’s gift comes and fills in that gap with a seriously meaty biography. I’ve only read one other Maguire book, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, where he took the much maligned stepsisters, normally portrayed as jealous cows out for poor Cinderella’s crystal footwear and marriage prospects, and put their story of against the backdrop of 17th century Holland on the eve of the Tulip Market Crash. Since I was never a huge fan of old Ashenputel, it wasn’t a hard sell making the stepsisters into believable, sympathetic victims of warped storytelling. Now, the Wicked Witch as sympathetic? That crazy green bitch in the pointy hat with a serious shoe obsession (Again with the shoes!) and a thing against dogs?

According to Wicked, the future Wicked Witch of the West was born as Elphaba, the daughter of a noble-born mother and minister father in Muchkinland (Not all Munchkins are shorties, according to Maguire). Her mother, already miserable in her marriage, retreats into a drugged fog after the birth of her pea-green, razor-teethed bundle of joy, while her father further ensconces himself in his religious fanaticism. Maguire spends much of the first section of the novel laying the groundwork for Elphaba’s wretched childhood and focuses mostly on her tortured parental lineage and their faulty relationship. When the novel shoots forwards 15 years in the second section, Elphaba has grown, not surprisingly, into a brittle, anti-social, but intelligent teenage girl. She arrives at Crage Hall, a women’s university, and by the very nature of her appearance and background (After the birth of her sister Nessarose, her parents became missionaries to the primitive Quadling people), Elphaba is automatically an outsider. As a result of a mishap involving a chaperone and a rusty nail, she is stuck rooming with her beautiful social-climbing Galinda. Polar opposites, the girls at first give each other a generous berth, but Elphaba senses a strong intellect underneath her flibbertygibbit exterior and prods Galinda into revealing it. They establish a tenuous friendship and become the central figures in a close-knit clique of college students from throughout Oz.

During her second year in college, Elphaba becomes swept up in a radical movement against the reigning Wizard’s tyrannical, Naziesque regime, and in the third section, she disappears into her new identity as a revolutionary. After a doomed love affair with a former classmate and botched assassination attempt, Elphaba retreats into a nunnery. Upon leaving the convent years later, she makes a journey of penitence and self-imposed exile into the wilderness of the Vinkus. This fourth section of the novel chronicles Elphaba’s ascent to her Wicked Witch title, her growing paranoia, and dabbling in the magical arts and a scientific sorcery akin to the work of Doctor Moreau. In the novel’s final section, Elphaba’s story collides with the familiar tale of displaced Dorothy and her dramatic arrival in Munchinland. Nessarose has assumed her inherited position of leadership in Munchkinland and rules her diminutive populace with a blind religious zealotry and a dash of sorcery. Her death by house is celebrated as a liberating gift to the Munchkins, but Elphaba is convinced Dorothy is an agent of the Wizard. She is further enraged when she discovers Galinda, now known as Glinda the Good Witch of the North, is working to protect the foreign interloper and her filthy dog. And of course there is the matter of the enchanted shoes, a gift to Nessarose from their father, which have become something of a touchstone amongst the Munchkins. Upon learning of Dorothy’s visit and bargain with the Wizard, Elphaba retreats to her stronghold in the Vinkus to await her fate at the hands of Dorothy and her companions.

And that, dear friends, was the most difficult plot summary I think I’ve ever tried to write. Maguire’s novel is incredibly dense; it’s an immersion, not just into the life and times of the title character, but of the people and fabric of the Land of Oz. He fashions an entire tapestry of myth, culture, architecture, politics, fashion, races, and religions. Oz seems to exist somewhere between Victorian England and Middle Earth. Since it’s been a good 25 years since I picked up a Baum book, I can’t say how much Maguire takes from the source novels, but I did recognize references to iconic images and themes from both the book and the film: the yellow brick road, silver shoes, Ozma, tiktoks, and Elphaba’s allergy to water (Yes, the Witch succumbs to anaphylactic shock.). Maguire even establishes connections to Elphaba between the characters who will be known as the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion. The only disappointment in all this lush reimaging of Oz was in Maguire’s characterization of Dorothy. She’s given very little in the way of fleshed-out truthfulness in her character and is as blowsy as the storm that brought her into Elphaba’s world. But then again, this is the Witch’s story.

With so much going on in one novel, it is no surprise that Maguire wanted to revisit his Oz and has penned two sequels to Wicked. The first, Son of a Witch, was published in 2006, and the second, A Lion Amongst Men, was just recently released. I expect Maguire may continue to write tales of his Oz considering the magnificent groundwork he laid down in telling Elphaba’s story.

Fantasy novels aren’t often on my bedside table, so admittedly, the fanciful dialogue and prose that is part and parcel of the genre feels a bit burdensome to me after a few hundred pages. For me, reading fantasy is akin to wearing an angora sweater; at first I enjoy the thick, fuzzy fabric, but after a while the hairs start getting in my eyes and driving me insane and I’ve got to take the damn thing off. Around the fourth section, the novel really lost a lot of its energy or perhaps my angora/fantasy fatigue was setting in; either way, I had to actually put the book down for a day or two to recover my interest. For as talented a fantasy author as Maguire is, there were occasions in the novel that read too modern. Dialogue between two characters would lose that otherworldly tone and sound all entire world like some snappy quips lifted straight from of a sitcom (think classic “Will and Grace”).

Back to my original question: Does Maguire succeed in revealing The Wicked Witch of the West as less villainous and more misunderstood? I will say that in the end you don’t like Elphaba; she’s full of faults-prickly, misguided, paranoid, self-loathing-and in many ways completely blinded to reality by those faults. But you sympathize with her. You cringe at her mistakes and her misinterpretations. Through the novel, you become in a way her travel companion on the strange, sad road of her life and in being privy to those bumps and missteps along the way that shape her persona, you view her as not so much a hook-nose wretch but a scarred, lost soul. While her death is not a surprise, it is frustrating in its futility. Maguire sends his Witch off in a more delicate style than the Dorothy of silver screen did: The body apologizes to the soul for its errors, and the soul asks forgiveness for squatting in the body without invitation.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

100 Books in One Year #9: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Cannonball Read / AlabamaPink

Books | October 21, 2008 |

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