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

Gregory Maguire

Regan Books / Harper Collins

US Trade Paperback

ISBN 0-060-98710-3

Publication Date: 10-15-1995

409 Pages; $15.00

Date Reviewed: 11-03-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, General Fiction


My earliest memories of movie-induced terror torment me with images of flying monkeys and a green-skinned witch. As a result, I've never watched the 'The Wizard of Oz'. Even as an adult I've managed to miss it; no room in my world for childish things, even if they're the stuff of cinema classics. So it's no surprise that I missed 'Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West' by author Gregory Maguire the first time round. Fortunately for my reading life, times have changed, and while I still haven't seen 'The Wizard of Oz' -- so few have seen him -- I've just finished the tremendously enjoyable meta-fictional update from author Gregory Maguire. He has neatly done what I thought could never be done; stir my interest in the relentlessly over-exposed movie and series of books by L. Frank Baum. But frankly, those will take a back seat to Maguire's own fiction. This fantasy works so well, on so many levels, it's hard to know who first to buy the extra copies for. Maguire embeds political intrigue, social commentary and a wonderfully detailed character study in a surprisingly down-to-earth fantasy. Good grows from evil deeds and evil springs from good intentions. 'Wicked' turns what you know upside-down. What you don't know falls squirming into the light.

'Wicked' is true to its entire title; it encompasses the life and times of the woman who comes to be known as 'The Wicked Witch of the West' in the world of L. Frank Baum's Oz. It starts on the day of her birth and ends on the day of her death. What comes between is simply one of the most captivating bits of fantasy character detail readers are likely to find. Born with green skin and sharp teeth, Elphaba isn't a well-liked child. While her randy mother Melena remains at home, her father the stolidly religious Frex tilts at the misdeeds of a mostly poor bunch of peasants. But Elphaba is smart, and as she grows her intellect helps her deal with the problems of being green. But she doesn't just strike out against the injustice in her own life. With the arrival of the mysterious and autocratic Wizard in the Land of Oz, society begins to unravel. The rich are pitted against the poor and laws are enacted to prevent popular protest. None of this sits well with Elphaba, who is determined to do something about it.

Maguire's success in this novel rests on his ability to create a detailed, believable world populated with detailed, believable characters. Maguire's Oz is a political animal, populated by political Animals, beasts with intelligence and the ability to speak, as well as animals, who are either simply silent, or simply beasts. How do you tell? They're the first targets of a vicious pogrom by the Wizard, and Elphaba's reaction to their treatment leads her down a path that would today be called terrorism. In the years intervening since Maguire wrote his novel, the themes he discusses -- the nature of activism as potentially both good and evil, simultaneously, the nature of conspiracy and its counterpart paranoia, the nature of humanity as something outside the human form -- have become even more compelling. When Maguire infects the Emerald City with random killings and public bombings, he does so from within the point of view of the so-called terrorist, but makes life on both sides of the coin compellingly clear. You'll find more clear-headed political thinking in this fantasy than you will in most conventions.

But the real appeal of this novel lies in the characters. Elphaba is unraveled carefully, with each event perfectly pitched to help drive her to the depths she will achieve. As she becomes more twisted and tweaked, the reader's sympathy increases, because we know where she's been, both emotionally and politically. But Maguire also makes sure to give his other characters the proper shadings and details; Galinda, who becomes Glinda, is a dizzy socialite, while Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, suffers from an infirmity that should be even more debilitating than Elphaba's. In particular, Maguire does a wonderful job at creating Elphaba's college years in the city of Shiz. It's here that they all encounter immortal icons amidst the universal challenges of adolescence. And it's here that their lives begin to drain away towards their inevitable destinies.

Maguire does an admirable job of playing down the placement of the most memorable aspects of Oz as they pop up in his narrative. They're each built up slowly and subtly, from the flying monkeys to the compellingly beautiful shoes. The denouement turns Dorothy's triumph into Elphaba's tragedy, and the readers will be turning the pages to get there. The accelerated pace may leave the reader feeling that the fantasy has worn a bit thin, but this is primarily a journey of understanding, not arrival. You all know the goal; you will be wicked, you will be dead. But it's what you do on your way there that distinguishes you from the Animals, from the animals, from the monkeys. They'll fly and be free. Your fate may not be so kind.