Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wicked - The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

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.

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:

• 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.

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.

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.


Ryan said...

That book sounds really interesting. A woman I work with was telling me about reading it the other day and it sounds like I might have to borrow it from her.

Tally said...

Hi Jenn,
The book sounds really interesting. I'll give it a look when I'm in the bookstore next. I have to admit though that I've never been a big fan of the Wizard of Oz--hard to believe, I know--but maybe I'll like the book better than the movie.