Sunday, July 31, 2011

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

Title:               Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            16+
Author:          Gregory Maguire
Publisher:       Regan Books
Place:              New York
Date:               1995
Pages:             406

Wicked takes on the daunting task of approaching one of the world’s best-loved classics from a daring, unpopular, and rather adult point of view.  Born a green infant with monstrous teeth, Elphaba grows into a sophisticated and serious, if somewhat aloof and acerbic, young woman.  During boarding school, she rooms with a pretentious young woman from the north named Galinda, and eventually develops aspirations of political reform, not unlike the suffragettes, although her group’s style more closely resembles that of Malcom X or the Black Panthers.  After her married lover is caught in the crossfire of her plan and murdered, Elphaba buries herself in the West of Oz, and eventually journeys to the Vinkus with her son to beg his widow’s forgiveness.  The kidnapping of this family, and an alien visitor to Oz who drops a house on her crippled, pompously devout sister leads Elphaba to the East where she learns Galinda, now Glinda, has given the visitor the sister’s precious shoes, a symbol to Elphaba of her father’s favoritism.

The Wizard, trying to rule a country in political turmoil and on the brink of war, orders the visitor, Dorothy, to kill Elphaba, who is somewhat sarcastically known as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Furious with the girl’s theft of the shoes and believing Dorothy means her harm, Elphaba captures her.  Although Dorothy insists she has no intention of harming the Witch, the story winds to its inevitable, if accidental conclusion.  Through the book, Maguire attempts to establish the Witch as a fully three-dimensional and completely misunderstood character and explain along the way many of the best-known and loved components of Baum’s Oz, including the presence of the Great Book of Magic, Glinda’s rise to power as a sorceress, and the creation of the silver slippers. 

The book is very long and paced somewhat slow with high-handed language that will likely deter younger teens.  Maguire makes some interesting attempts to characterize the three major magic powers of Oz and the Wizard himself as well.  While his characterizations are complete, and he certainly creates an interesting take on the Witch of the East (who died immediately at the start of the original Wizard of Oz and almost nothing is known of from the Oz canon), his characterizations of Glinda and the Witch of the West are thorough, but extremely inconsistent, both with the original canon (and movie) and even internally.  While the book may be a wise or even required read for older teens or young adults, diehard fans of the original series may be disappointed in this revisitation of Oz.

Quite frankly, I was disappointed with Wicked.  I was pleased at the opportunity to read it and had heard very good things about it, but it fell vastly short of my expectations.  I had devoured the original fourteen books by Baum before I was ten, and reread them routinely all through my teen years and even into adulthood.  While Wicked demonstrates ample evidence that Maguire read the books, his documentation of previously established events in this story wavers between the events of the books and the events of the movie.  He cannot seem to remain consistent as to which story he is telling, and thus leaves glaring holes and inaccuracies throughout his story.  He is not even consistent with himself, attempting to rationalize occurrences such as the Witch’s green skin with weak and often offensive solutions. 

Elphaba is born a monster for no apparent reason with green skin, a horrible personality, a deathly fear of water that is hard to swallow, and teeth like a shark, which she inexplicably loses before she becomes an adult.  In boarding school, she has completely transformed to a serious, brilliant and studious young woman with a profound sense of social justice.  By the end of the book, she has been titled the Wicked Witch, more by accident than by design, and although her anger and frustration lead her to attempt to commit a few truly vicious acts, she is generally unsuccessful.  Much of the book bogs down with lengthy travels, times in seclusion, or rambling diatribes about the soul or forgiveness, from which Elphaba can seem to derive no conclusions.  At the end, she suddenly and wholeheartedly believes that the Scarecrow is her long-lost Winkie lover in disguise returning for her, and flies into an inconsolable fury when she realizes this is not the case, a sequence that is incredibly jarring and almost impossible to credit.

The Witch’s life as portrayed by Maguire appears to be a purposeless ramble through her years in which she accomplishes nothing, has no idea what she wants or thinks, and dies accidentally as purposelessly as she lived.  While I appreciate the author’s attempts to humanize the Witch and sympathize with her, and recognize that it is held in some popular esteem, I cannot truthfully say that I found this book to be enjoyable, accurate or particularly recommendation-worthy and I cannot imagine many teens that will not get mired in its endless grind.


Post a Comment


A Weaving of Words Blog Layout is designed by productive dreams Bloggerized by Blogger Template © 2009