Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire

Before there was a Dorothy, before there was a twister, and before the Lollipop Guild sang in Munchkinland, a very strange girl was born, a girl with green skin, who was named Elphaba.  As a tiny babe, she was a bit savage, and adverse to water.  As she grew, she and her sister attended Shiz University, where Elphaba learned that the Animals in Oz were being oppressed.  She made it her mission to join the resistance and fight for what is right and good.  Though she seeks to fight the evil forces, those forces instead force her to the margins of society and vilify her to the point that she is deemed a wicked witch.

Wicked is a revisionist view of life in the land of Oz.  As a fan of the Oz stories in both book and film since childhood, it only made sense to me that I give this alternate viewpoint a chance.  My first exposure to this story was actually through the musical, which is quite different from the book.  Where the musical is somewhat lighthearted, with a happy ending, the book is a dark allegory for past and current political actions throughout the world.

With the Animals in Oz being marginalized and repressed, one can see parallels to the Nazi treatment of Jews, as well as society's treatment of gays and lesbians.  We constantly see the struggle between good and evil, and evil does not always look the way we expect it to look.  Being different, whether because you have green skin or because you are a talking Animal, is ultimately deemed bad in the book, just like in society, and those who are different must be isolated, and if need be, punished.

The book is extremely dark, and it has significant political undertones which made it a little difficult to read.  In fact, I had to walk away from the book for several weeks, and return to finish it later.  It is funny, books with monsters like werewolves and vampires do not bother me as much as this one did.  When the monster is hatred or bigotry, and wears a face like you or I, it is much more disturbing.  Though it shares ties to childrens' books, this is clearly not intended for a young audience.  There are adult themes, and some pretty serious violence.

Readers will appreciate this book much more if acquainted not just with the popular Oz movie from the 1930s, but also the original Oz books.  Having read several of the Oz books, I was better equipped to recognize the mythology and characters from Oz.  One thing that I did have trouble wrapping my head around were the different religions of Oz.  I think there is a lot at play within the book, and it probably takes more than one reading to really allow it all to sink in.

This book was from my personal library.

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