Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

Rating 9.0/10
The political machinations, religious subtext, personal and broader struggles all feel very real.

Oz is over. And what a strange trip it has been. In the end, extremely rewarding and well worth the ride.

Gregory Maguire first visited Oz in 1995's “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West“. He explored and expanded on it in 2 subsequent sequels – 2005's “Son of A Witch” and 2008's “A Lion Among Men“. In his final book in The Wicked Years series, 2011's “Out of Oz", he has made the world his own.

This isn’t the first series based on Oz since L. Frank Baum’s famous initial book in 1900. He wrote 13 sequels and his publisher printed another 26 Oz books over the next 42 years.

Most people are familiar with the novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” – or its popular Broadway musical version – “Wicked“.

"Wicked” is an alternate look at the story of, and behind, “The Wizard of Oz” (movie version) as told from the point of view of the “wicked” witch, in the books her name is Elphaba (L. Frank Baum = LFB = Elphaba). In the books she strikes an unlikely friendship with a blond haired, white skinned fellow classmate at her college of Shiz, Galinda (later “Glinda”) Upland.

The Wicked Years series looks at the social and political dealings of the land of Oz – touching on things like animal rights, prejudice and stereotyping, good and evil, the role of fate versus free will in our lives, religion as totem and charade, and what defines family and being a parent. Maguire has created, throughout the series, a large tapestry that he uses to tell a political and ethical narrative that is closely enough rooted in our “memory” of Oz (from the movie) but that has enough room to breathe, grow, and become it’s own world. The political machinations, religious subtext, personal and broader struggles all feel very real.

The 4 books, taken together, tell a whole, and compelling, story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. The storytelling comes full circle, and virtually every character you meet early on comes back in some capacity. The first books adherence to the general plot details of the movie force Maguire to make some interesting choices and connections, which in the end turn out to be extremely well played with and create an overarching mythology for the series. That’s not to say it isn’t difficult along the way. I found the middle two books, at the time I read them, to be a little plodding, despite the action and movement. They felt a little like a string of set pieces strung together to advance a story I wasn’t sure of. Looking back now, they are the classic “middle volume” of a trilogy – the characters are introduced and the plot started in the first volume, the climax of everything happens in the third, but the middle feels (often) like a series of steps to connect the two. I do think, having concluded the series and understanding where things led, it would help to reread them.

As to “Out of Oz” itself, it is a wonderful book with both surprising, and logically unsurprising, twists and outcomes. You come to appreciate and love certain characters and choices they have made. Choices seem to be a big theme with Maguire. Our cast of characters have made and do make various choices throughout the series. Sometimes they make sense intuitively, and often they are the best choices available at the time – choices made under duress, choices made without complete information, choices made for the wrong reasons – in other words, human and real choices. The implications for many of those choices finally come back to have an impact. The best choice at the time can have unintended consequences and reverberations will ultimately come back. While Dorothy had a presence in the first book – her actions drove the storyline – we rarely saw her. Elphaba – the Wicked Witch – was our guide and lens. In this book it is somewhat reversed – Dorothy finds her way back to Oz and has a role to play in the action. It is Elphaba, whose presence has hung all over the previous 2 books, who continues to be the unseen hand and character. In the end, the series is about finishing the actions she started in “Wicked”.

Maguire has a wonderful writing style. When you are reading his work you feel like you are reading literature, not just books. But he also has his tongue firmly planted in his own cheek and writes characters with flaws. He can find the humor in a desperate or difficult situation. He often keeps the reader in the dark as much as his characters are and leaves mysteries unanswered so that you can create your own interpretation of what is insinuated. The end of the final chapters echo’s back to the first lines of the first book, bringing the entire series around. And Maguire has the skill to also tie together the book with the movie, which is the heart of Oz for most people. As he says near the conclusion of the book:

“We don’t get an endless number of orbits away from the place where meaning first arises, that treasure-house of first experiences. What we learn, instead, is that our adventures secure us in isolation. Experience revokes our license to return to simpler times. Sooner or later, there’s no place remotely like home.”

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