Title: Wicked – The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Author: Gregory Maguire
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 406 pages; small font, large book, not a quick read.
Rating: 4/5 – Worth paying full price.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic story, whether you saw the film on TV, read the book(s), or both. There are very few people in North America who have never heard of Oz, and most everyone can name at least a half-dozen characters: Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, and The Wicked Witch of the West, to name a few. Even if some of these characters only have titles instead of names, and don’t have much of a character to them, they’re well-known and loved. Or, perhaps, hated, if you were that sort of kid.
In Wicked, Maguire, who is in the business of recreating old childhood stories into books better suited for adults, takes one of the most notable villains from Oz and turns her into something more. She’s given the name Elphaba, which is based on L. Frank Baum’s initials (El ef bee, el fa ba). Elphaba is born looking like a demon child, with green skin and teeth like razors. Her parents are poor people who try to live a simple life, but nothing is simple in Oz. There are great political problems, religious problems, and a scared populace that is quick to attack first and ask questions later.
The book skips many years at a time, so that we can go from creepy toddler Elphaba, to socially awkward, brilliant, college-aged Elphaba, who is quick-witted and doesn’t act like the typical fashion-and-boys-obsessed girls around her. Her roommate at school, who later becomes Glinda the Good, is not so much good as she is a beautiful spoiled brat. Elphaba and Glinda leave each other changed after their years together, predictably, and Elphaba ventures out to the dangerous and glamourous Emerald City in hopes of furthering her goals towards Animal rights. Despite her childhood, there is still something in her that clings to hope, and she believes that she can usher Oz into a world that isn’t about hate, poverty, and cruelty. Unfortunately, the challenges of living in the Emerald City are too great for her, and she’s instead forced down a path of life that she never expected to take.
Wicked is a riveting book, and hard to put down. It can be heavy on the detail at times, but it’s well worth it for the imagery created. The language and tone is dark, and written in a way that makes it all appear to be normal, as though the turmoil and troubles that the characters live through are to be expected of life. Oz itself isn’t much changed, but instead of painting it in rainbows and gold, it’s looked at through a sickly green lens that magnifies the problems that a woman faces trying to grow up and live beyond the expectations of those around her.
In the end, it’s hard to tell if Elphaba was the villain, or the heroine, or both, which I was happy to see. Taking The Wicked Witch of the West and making her the heroine is changing her too much; this is merely expanding, and not erasing or destroying long-held images. Anyone who likes classic stories and fantasy will enjoy this book – and if you don’t have time to read it, there is always the musical, which did very well and is again on tour. (Incidentally, it’s playing in Baltimore in January and February, 2007.)