Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Son of a Witch

Son of a Witch
by Gregory Maguire
Recommended Ages: 14+

The world waited ten years for a sequel to Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It had plenty to keep it busy while it waited, though. During that time Maguire published several other books, notably Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror Mirror. He also saw Wicked become a successful Broadway musical. And so, though he had left loose strings dangling at the end of Wicked on purpose to make readers feel the tragedy of its main character's death, he took it in hand to tie some of them up. So Maguire says in the interview that accompanies his own audio-book performance of this book. Don't be surprised, however, if the sequel leaves even more strings untied. Two more sequels have already arrived: A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz, continuing the "Wicked Years" series that puts a grown-up twist on L. Frank Baum's classic series of children's books.

Three notes of caution are in order before I proceed. First, while Maguire has a nice voice and would probably do a great job reading his books for children, I do not think he has the versatility or the talent for dialects demanded by a story this complex. Secondly, Oz purists (and I'm fairly close to being one) may wish Maguire had created his own fantasy world rather than subjecting one so well established and beloved to such a hostile reinterpretation. Thirdly, the Adult Content Advisory that Wicked sent up the flagpole continues to wave and flap. This book explores some mature themes in political and private life with sometimes disturbing imagery, coarse language, and a relentless realism that casts an ominous shadow across the innocent, optimistic world of Oz. Also, there's the sex, sex, more sex, some of it of the troubling boy-on-boy persuasion.

Liir, the boy who may have been Elphaba's son, is now a man by every definition of the word, but he's not sure whether the love of his life is a Quadling girl named Candle or an army officer named Trism. Maybe it's both. Isn't that complicated! Liir's mission in life is supposed to be finding his half-sister Nor, who was last seen in bondage to the Wizard before Dorothy melted the Witch. To find her, however, he has to learn the magic to help an Elephant princess return to her true form before she dies. And he takes a roundabout route to doing that, passing through some of the darkest corners of Oz along the way.

When the Great and Terrible Oz abdicated, he left a power vacuum that has been filled by a succession of strange and awful rulers. Glinda was all right, but the Scarecrow who succeeded her was really an impostor and a figurehead for others. Eventually a new emperor arises who considers himself an apostle of the Unnamed God, but who is really the worst of the lot. What Liir does in this emperor's service leaves a terrible stain on his conscience that he will have a hard time wiping away. What he does after leaving the emperor's service shows amazing courage, passion, and a magical power he never saw in himself.

Wicked was more or less a story about a woman alone against a corrupt world. Son of a Witch, perhaps predictably, puts a young man in that lonely role. The one story is a quest for forgiveness that ends cruelly unfulfilled. The other is a quest for the truth that still remains to be revealed, though one crucial fact is stunningly confirmed at the very end.

Maguire's latest novel Egg and Spoon is another example of reinterpreting a traditional story about a witch. He brings a similar, original touch to several other folk classics, such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He excels at creating believable characters and a depth of focus that lends a sense of reality to his fictional worlds. In spite of the concerns noted above, I am interested in seeing what else he does with this talent.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
Recommended Ages: 14+

I've had plenty of opportunity to read this book since it came out in 1995. For one thing, I have owned a copy of it for some years. It isn't that I wasn't interested. It's simply that I didn't think the book needed any boosting from me. It's a popular bestseller. Dozens of readers have recommended it to me. A long-running and award-winning Broadway musical was inspired by it. There are rumors of the book being adapted for a TV miniseries, and of the musical being made into a film. It has become the first book in a quartet known as "The Wicked Years," all of which have already been reviewed by enough critics. Chances are, a lot of people reading this review have already formed their own opinion of the book. So what do I have to add except, "Ding, dong, I read it too"?

I didn't end up reading it, strictly speaking. I listened to John McDonough's audiobook performance, one of several Maguire titles my local public library holds in its CD Book collection. McDonough did a great job voicing all the characters from young to old, male and female, good and bad. The recording made a week or two of commuting and business travel pass very enjoyably. By driving amid quivers of intrigue, wriggles of suspense, shakes of laughter, and blurs of tears, I added risk and adventure to pedestrians and other drivers. It livened up the whole community.

Note well, this story carries an adult content advisory. This is not a cute little children's book, like the Oz books of L. Frank Baum and those who carried on after his death. It is not an innocent fantasy in a magic world full of whimsy and nonsense. Dorothy only briefly appears in it. It's the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and you already know how that ends: with a scream of agony and a wail of despair as a bucketful of water melts her. What you don't know is how she became wicked.

Elphaba Thropp was always mean and green. It was tough on her family from the day she was born. It gave her trouble later when she was in college with Glinda, who would one day be called the good witch, and her beautiful but disabled sister Nessarose, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the East. They didn't come into these nicknames until much later. Some of that had to do with religion, politics, and personality. Some of it really had to do with a mysterious, magic-tinged fate.

It's an adult book, as I was saying just now. Partly this means it has coarse language and graphic scenes of sex and violence. And partly it means that it explores grown-up issues, like the tension between religious belief and unbelief, whether or not people have a soul, the rights of animals (not to mention Animals), the dangers of a society ruled by pragmatists, nihilists, and totalitarian strongmen. It touches on adultery, substance abuse, the ethics of education, and economic and cultural inequality. Above all, it is about a woman's quest for forgiveness.

The sequels to this book are Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz. Maguire's other work includes the Hamlet Chronicles series of seven children's books, counting down from Seven Spiders Spinning; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Mirror Mirror; and What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy.