Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
I’ve enjoyed all four of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked Years series. He’s a great writer who seems to specialize in retellings. He’s also written several versions of some classic fairy tales that I greatly enjoyed, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror. What The Wicked Years does to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books goes beyond most other retellings. His world-beneath-the-world overshadows the original in depth and vision. I feel hesitant saying that, though, because I admit that I never read the original Oz series, and my familiarity with the story is limited to the classic movie. Maguire makes me want to go back and read them, but I’ve heard from readers I respect that the later books are not very good anyway. Maguire’s Oz cannot be the same as Baum’s Oz, and now Maguire’s Oz is the one that has my loyalty.
The darkness of this series is what sets it apart from children’s literature to me. It’s political, very concerned with the governing structures of this imaginary land. (And the governing structures are so interesting and unusual: I love that the leadership of several provinces is passed down matrilineally, for example). It also gets surprisingly violent at times. I don’t see much of what I know of pre-Maguire canonical Oz in the books, besides some place and character names. Maguire’s conception of what was going on behind the scenes of the original Wizard of Oz is revolutionary, undermining any conventional good-versus-evil narrative.
Out of Oz did a great job of tying up all of the loose ends from the other books in the series, bringing back characters and setting them down in appropriate final places. Even Dorothy comes back for the series’ end, taken back to Oz by San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Her wide-eyed guilelessness is reminiscent of Judy Garland, but even she developed a more complex and colorful vision of what her worlds were like. It cracked me up how Dorothy kept wanting to sing and everyone else just wanted her to shut up.
The whimsical language and exuberant wordplay in the book add a lot of fun to an otherwise somewhat dark tale. Maguire is always turning a phrase on its head, then on its side, then inserting it in the most unexpectedly perfect place. My favorite example: Brr (AKA The Cowardly Lion) answers a question,”A little bird told me,” and it makes me wonder if Maguire set up the entire previous scene (where he does indeed get news from a bird) just to give him the chance to say that. The main character, Rain, generates some of the more unique turns of phrase in the first half of the book, as a child with a very cute, incorrect way of speaking.
Though this slightly silly tone is dominant, it is far from the only tone Maguire adopts. The sentences in the love scenes are delicate, as if they might shatter with the slightest touch, mirroring the characters’ vulnerability. In such an action-packed book, many words are spent in exposition, explanation, debate, and description. The unique voices of the characters are what make these information-packed scenes go down so easily.
Without giving spoilers, I’ll say that I found the ending both surprising and appropriate. Unlike in a “gotcha!” ending, there were fair clues that could lead a careful and especially perceptive reader down the right path. Some possibilities were left open and true happiness was left offstage, merely contemplated, but it truly is the end of the series. In general, I think series books that are written with a planned end in mind are vastly superior to series books that just keep going as long as they’re making money. After a while an endless series gets repetitive or overly episodic; the connections between the different installments weaken to accommodate a more casual audience. A more thoughtfully planned series, though, will always have an end. The books, though there are fewer of them, gain momentum and force through driving toward a specific conclusion. That is definitely the case with The Wicked Years, and my favorite series books.