Saturday, April 28, 2012


Today we have a guest blogger: Eric Shanower, cartoonist of Oz comics and other stuff.

By Gregory Maguire
Illustrations by Douglas Smith
Published by William Morrow, 2011
A Review by Eric Shanower

Back in 1996 I had a mixed reaction to Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. The first half was fascinating, but the second half puttered on to a limp conclusion.  In the early 2000s I enjoyed its sequel, Son of a Witch, although I seem to be in a minority holding that opinion. My favorite moments in Son of a Witch include the visit to the Emerald City prison called Southstairs, and the tryst between Liir, son of the Wicked Witch of the West, and Trism bon Cavalish. After that I felt let down in 2007 by A Lion Among Men, a tedious slog I had to force myself through. Then I recently finished the fourth book in Maguire’s Wicked Years series, Out of Oz.

I loved it.

Do not read Out of Oz unless you’ve read the previous books. (Well, you can skip A Lion Among Men if you want.) Out of Oz is the perfect final act. Maguire has said that he wrote each book intending to go no further (although I might be wrong about A Lion Among Men - he may have been planning Out of Oz by the time he got to that one.) If that’s really so, then what he’s done with the Wicked Years series is an amazing and lovely example of flying by the seat of your pants and having it end up not only working, but having it end in triumph.

There’s lots for Oz fans to especially love about the surface of Out of Oz. References large and small to past Oz works abound. Out of Oz begins with Dorothy Gale’s trip to San Francisco being interrupted by the 1906 earthquake. That clearly intended parallel to L. Frank Baum’s fourth Oz book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, hooked me into Maguire’s continuation of his story right off the bat, all trepidation after A Lion Among Men cast aside. A further parallel to Dorothy and the Wizard is a trial as full of sense and sensitivity as that of Eureka the kitten, but it’s not Eureka on trial this time. It’s Dorothy - for the murders of the Wicked Witches of the East and West.

Less plot-centric Oz references proliferate delightfully - from Oz books by Baum and Thompson and illustrations by Denslow and Neill, through Baum’s non-Oz writings such as John Dough and the Cherub and Father Goose: His Book, to stage and screen versions such as The Wiz and Return to Oz. Even Judy Garland impersonators get a false-eyelashed wink. When the characters start conversing in lyrics from the stage version of Wicked, it’s so self-referential in such a sideways manner that I just want to hug Maguire for the clever mischief of it. On top of the Oz references there are plenty of nods to other fantasy literature for children.

So there are parallels between this fourth Oz book by Maguire and Baum’s fourth Oz book. But it’s Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, that Maguire riffs on most closely here, with appearances by Mombey, General Jinjuria, and even Jellia Jamb. That’s not to say Maguire copies Marvelous Land. He doesn’t. It’s more of an underground exploration. Once readers twig to what Baum material Maguire is exploring most intently, there’s the question of which way he’ll go with it. And either way, how will he make it work?

Maguire makes it work richly. The climactic scene plays out so inevitably I can’t believe Maguire didn’t have at least the kernel of it in mind way back when he was planning Wicked. I think it will prove highly satisfying to anyone who loves the Oz books. Which is not to say that the characters end up satisfied. Out of Oz wouldn’t be the deeply human work it is under the surface if everything turned out happily ever after. For the reader, however, this book is perhaps the happiest end to the Wicked Years that could possibly happen. What a treasure Maguire has given us. With the understanding that the first two books (at least) should be read before this one, I whole-heartedly recommend Out of Oz.

All the important characters return. Well, at least those that didn’t die in the earlier books, such as Elphaba, Fiyero, Princess Nastoya, the Glass Cat. Here are Glinda, Liir, Nor, Candle, firmly entrenched within their lives once more. I was glad to see the formerly Cowardly Lion, Brrr, again, despite A Lion Among Men. And many of the minor characters are back, too. Nanny, Shell, Cherrystone, Iskinaary, Mr. Mikko, Chistery, even Dosey the Wren. One character I was longing to see again shows up near the end, but I won’t reveal which one that is. Ah, what joy to be in their company, even though through much of the book most of the characters are suffering from one sort of heartache or another. However, it’s not so much that they’ve all “returned” or “are back.” Out of Oz is simply a continuation of their collective story. With this fourth entry to the series, the first three books become no longer standalone stories, but chunks of a single saga that can no longer stand separately. Out of Oz forces the Wicked Years series into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The most important character in Out of Oz is Rain - daughter of Liir and Candle - granddaughter of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. A singular child, not hard to love, but a bit painful to love - a bit painful for her own solitary sake, a bit painful for the sakes of the characters who are bound to her in love, and a bit painful for the reader. Rain is like so many of the children of the Oz books - she’s an independent child who, if not actually an orphan, might as well be one. This story, no matter how much time is spent with other characters - and plenty of time is well spent with Glinda, Dorothy, Brrr, and Liir - this is Rain’s story, Rain’s journey, both physical and emotional. When it begins, her green complexion has been disguised, her capacity for magic has been suppressed, and her best protection is neglect. Rain’s got a lot to deal with in her - Maguire’s - world of Oz. Her relationship with her parents, her relationship with the lion Brrr, her relationship to her grandmother Elphaba, and most movingly her relationship with the boy Tip. Yes, that Tip. Rain deals with everything Maguire throws at her. And by the end of the story she’s grown. Grown, if not up, then within. And out. Out of Oz.

Memorable scenes include the return to the castle of Kiamo Ko, Rain’s discovery of a stone with a seahorse carved into it, Glinda’s farewell to Rain before bowing to an unexpected but logical fate, and a marvelous secondhand shop in the city of Shiz. Humor is spread around generously, even as the characters face bleak situations: the Grimmerie disguising itself as an unexpected twentieth century classic novel, the purposes Little Daffy has for the baking ingredient she collected in the poppy field, and the general reaction to Dorothy Gale’s unabashed Midwesterness and tendency to break into song at the drop of a hat.

Dorothy Gale is an odd element in Out of Oz. She’s neither Baum’s Dorothy nor Dorothy as played by Judy Garland. Flashes of these other Dorothys appear, but Maguire’s Dorothy is his own. Most of the time she’s not really likeable, but the reader, like the rest of the characters, can’t quite dislike her either. Maguire has successfully transformed Dorothy into a foreign object, which is exactly what a Kansas girl would be in Oz. When the prologue ended, I didn’t know whether Dorothy had been killed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or not.  I was happy to find that she survived - to become a victim, an annoyance, and a key player when she performs a well-known song for Emperor Shell in one of the most amusing and poignant moments in this amusing and poignant book.

Maguire’s prose style remains as dense as ever. Where a two-dollar word will suffice, he chooses a ten-dollar one. In a single page I came across two words unknown to me. I wondered whether Maguire simply made them up. Fulguration. Chuntered. From root and context I basically understood the first. But “chunter” was still pretty opaque until I looked it up as I was writing this. Mumble, British origin. Actually, there are many instances where words and phrases Maguire uses smack of British origin. I find this a little uncomfortable in a book set in Oz, the quintessential American fairyland, even if it’s a version of Oz that’s unquestionably a different facet of the Ozziverse than the Oz of L. Frank Baum. I could excuse Maguire’s Britishisms as some sort of reference to Merry Go Round in Oz by the McGraws, that series capper featuring nannies, heraldry, and roundabouts to the discomfort of many Oz enthusiasts (not to this one). But I really don’t think Out of Oz contains any homage to Merry Go Round.

The only other place Maguire’s prose firmly ejected me from the story was when “Rain slumped in the Lion’s forearms and noodled herself toward sleep.” Noodled? Really? I don’t know how one manages to noodle oneself toward sleep or anywhere else.

Are these quibbles? Perhaps. Despite these occasional stumbles, Maguire’s prose spins itself in musical phrasing, and while blatant in its advanced vocabulary, flows gorgeously along. I’d guess Maguire’s style is a matter of taste. If it’s to yours, it works beautifully. If not, then maybe you ought to read above your level more often.

But Out of Oz isn’t about improving your vocabulary - although the ability to comprehend a particular book is a thread of the story. Out of Oz is about finding your place in the world. It’s an echo of Dorothy’s goal in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It also turns Dorothy’s goal inside-out, repeating the phrase “There’s no place like home” with a different meaning. Out of Oz encourages me to cast aside any concerns that my adult love for Oz is simply a nostalgic inertia for a phenomenon that impacted my childhood. Sure, it’s fun to recognize the arcane Oz references strewn through the story. (I know exactly where Maguire got the keys that Mombey uses in a magic spell.) But Maguire’s story is far more than a guessing game to make use of all the Oz trivia that’s accumulated in my head since I was six. Maguire’s Oz deals more deeply - and starkly - with the details of what it means to be a mature human being than Baum’s Oz could. Baum’s Oz speaks directly, openly, to the heart of a child. Maguire’s Oz touches the heart of what it means to become adult. I decry those who accuse Maguire of tearing down what Baum built. Quite the opposite. Maguire has added his own strength on top of Baum’s foundation. As an Oz lover with an adult brain, an adult heart, and the courage to explore them both, I gratefully embrace the journey Out of Oz maps. I welcome Out of Oz into the world.


Jay said...

I liked "Son of a Witch" myself. For some reason, I liked the even-numbered books in the series, though given how long ago and how old I was when I read "Wicked," I likely owe it a re-read.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

A very well-written review, Eric. I've enjoyed reading Maguire's Oz books - less for the stories than for his prose, his turns of phrase and the moods he creates. I don't much care for his Oz but it's his Oz not Baum's. It's a place more inspired by the MGM movie and mainstream/classic non-fantasy literature than the whimsical fairyland of the books. It's a place where characters do act heroically but where there are no real heroes. Everyone who is decent is lost and broken. Out of Oz is the perfect way to end the series.

saintfighteraqua said...

I agree with you on Lion Among Men. It's not only the worst of the series it is one of the worst books I've ever read.
Out of Oz was the best in the series, beating out Wicked which in my opinion was far too slow and depressing.
I didn't really care for Son of a Witch either. It wasn't bad, it's just I couldn't care about anyone other than Liir himself.
Everyone was so self centered or just dull.
It was very enjoyable reading your review though and I found myself agreeing with most of what you said.

If you've never read his other books, they are pretty good too.

While I didn't love the Wicked books...I could never love something so dark and depressing, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the last one...if only for Dorothy and all the Oz/Baum references.

Atticus Gannaway said...

"I'd guess Maguire's style is a matter of taste. If it's to yours, it works beautifully. If not, then maybe you ought to read above your level more often."

While your review is very interesting, Eric, I find the quotation above to be rather snide and certainly judgmental about other people's differing viewpoints. If nothing else, it's a false dichotomy. Maguire's style is indeed a matter of taste. I found it to be insufferably ostentatious and dreadfully dull in many sections of Wicked, so much so that I had no interest in reading the sequels. It has nothing to do with not "reading above my level." But I would never call anyone else's intellect into question because they disagree with my own opinion.

ericshanower said...

Thanks, David.

Saintfighteraqua, the only other Maguire book I've read is Mirror, Mirror, the Snow White retelling. It didn't capture me.

But I loved his long short story "The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H." in the anthology How Beautiful the Ordinary. (And I'm not saying that just cuz I have a piece in it too.) I wanted my that story, or something very close to it, to be part of my own life.

ericshanower said...

Atticus, a couple things. You're absolutely right that I was being snide. I thought it was humorous enough that no one's nose would be put too out of joint, especially after I told how I didn't understand some words in the book.

But I wasn't calling anyone else's intellect into question, I was calling his or her literacy into question. It was a matter of vocabulary, not comprehension. I thought that was clear.

But maybe it wasn't and I guess I did bend your nose a little with my being snide. Sorry for giving offense.

Atticus Gannaway said...

Thanks for the response, Eric. I actually wouldn't say I was offended, but I suppose in my years of doing "The Oz Bookshelf" I've become particularly oriented toward/sensitized to even-handedness in reviews. It's interesting. One of my favorite authors is Nabokov, who was as ostentatious a writer as they come and whose books require having a large dictionary at hand constantly. But I found I could connect with his writing emotionally. I never felt that with Maguire.

Colin Ayres British Fan Of Oz said...

I haven't picked up Out of Oz although it' is on my to buy list. I enjoyed Wicked, and didn't Son of a Witch, I agreed about Lion Among I was bored stupid throughout that book.

I can confirm, that to chunter or someone chuntering is indeed used over here often. This main root to someone chuntering is a Northern England term and is particularily from the Yorkshire area.

ericshanower said...

Atticus, I understand your inability to connect emotionally with Maguire's writing. I think that nails my problem with A Lion Among Men and to a lesser extent with Wicked. I think that problem is nearly, maybe even completely, absent from Out of Oz. I felt for the characters and had an emotional connection to the events, one of the main reasons I found the fourth book so rewarding.

Sam said...

I did read "Wicked", which I was Not Happy with, before seeing the Musical with Mum, which we did enjoy . . . but in comparison to another stage Musical like "Mary Poppins" or other versions of Oz, it's a bit too scary or off and not for me to revisit!

I admit when I hear Dorothy mentioned it DOES put in me a bit of interest to MAYBE read "Son of a Witch" and "Out of Oz", but overall I don't like the kind of addition "Wicked" is to Oz . . . and it's something I could be happier without.

Your review did show insight and perception, but I'm not willing to put myself through any more 'Wicked'-ness.

Andrew Harris said...

I agree that Out of Oz was good - however I admit to feeling unsatisfied with the climactic treatment of Tip. I had feverishly anticipated this storyline since that moment in Son of a Witch when Liir comes across 'the old woman and the boy'. However the execution of it was somehow dry. Maguire seems to enjoy withholding catharsis because he believes life doesn't provide it.

A Lion Among Men was dire and I skipped through most of it - proof that Maguire's skill with Oz is not instinctive. The synergy of Elphaba/Glinda in Wicked was a happy discovery. Son of a Witch didn't quite match it and Lion was just ill-advised and very selfish. Maguire was NOT able to recreate the chemistry we previously enjoyed.

My own experience with storytelling is that a truly great story takes on a life of its own and comes through the writer rather than from the writer. The Wicked books increasingly came FROM Maguire rather than through him, as I strongly feel that they would have evolved very differently had they been allowed to follow the natural course of the story that remained sadly latent.

Considering the potential I saw in the Wicked series, I was disappointed by the way it turned out and my heart will always long for a different set of books as they might otherwise have been penned. Maguire is sweet and lovely and I met him once, but I fell out of love with him by the time I finished this series.

michellealvarez96 said...

I know I'm commenting on a book that came out quite awhile back, but after just finding it at the local secondhand bookstore and finishing it yesterday, I find myself left feeling a bit empty.

Maybe it just fell a bit too close to real life for me to deal with, but finishing out of Oz left me with a deep sense of longing. I wanted resolution and found none-- but I guess the story was about growing up after all.

Out of Oz did ramble (The whole series did. I was fond of the rambling.) and I can see how it might have been hard to connect with the characters. After all, they were always distant. But I think it was that distance that made me sympathetic to them, as if they had no one else but the reader.

Overall, loved it.

Unknown said...

Years later, in 2016...

I love this review. I finished the book two days ago after reading the other three within the past few months, and even seeing Wicked on Broadway. I thought this book was amazing, poignant, bittersweet, funny, intelligent. It leaves the audience to keep guessing, and who knows whether the author is going to write another (even though he says this is the last) or not? He said in an interview that he was open to the idea of coming back and writing more, even though he said, for now, this is the last.

I'm hoping there's more. For now, I'm composing the next stories in my head.