Friday, November 11, 2011

Out of Oz

In 1995 Gregory Maguire published his first novel for adults, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which reconceived L. Frank Baum's Oz as a country with a realistic history, culture, and geography, using the iconic villain to consider the process by which outsiders, neither good nor bad in any easily defined sense, become thought of as the embodiment of evil. (The novel was, of course the basis for the 2003 musical Wicked.) Then in 2005 came a sequel, Son of a Witch, following the Witch's son Liir as he sought identity, stability, and purpose in an Oz thrown into chaos by the Matter of Dorothy. 2008 saw A Lion Among Men, which examined the lives of the Cowardly Lion and the Maguire-invented character Yackle. It was with that book, which though it told a complete story felt less substantial and more part of an ongoing narrative, that the notion of a series, called The Wicked Years, first appeared. And now we have Out of Oz, the sprawling final volume of that series. With a large cast centering on "Wicked Witch" Elphaba's granddaughter Rain, the new novel explores the consequences of trying to maintain human relationships, especially those between parents and children, in the deprivation and disorder of war. Maguire's wry humor and deeply-felt humanism make for a nuanced and moving conclusion to his saga of a magical society in the midst of political turmoil.

Over the first three books in the series Maguire has built up quite a variety of characters and settings, and in Out of Oz he brings virtually all of them back at least briefly, giving the book at times the feeling of a leisurely farewell tour. (Some of the returns ought to be kept secret, but one at least is mentioned on the cover copy and can be discussed here. Dorothy, unintentional killer of Elphaba and her sister Nessarose, is back from Kansas, and with a more substantial role than in any previous book. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a coherent narrative reason for Dorothy to be in Out of Oz, but like many of Maguire's characters she has such delightful comic eccentricities that I don't feel like complaining.) There's a war on between Loyal Oz and the Free State of Munchkinland, but by and large Maguire's characters are concerned with staying out of it, so they spend large chunks of the book traveling incognito across Oz or in hiding in particular locations. This material is not very eventful, and plot developments mostly arrive in the form of exposition from visiting characters; multiple explanations, both of new storylines and events from previous books, in implausible dialogue are the major downside of the novel. But the witty exchanges that punctuate this exposition make it less of a chore than it might be, and the long interludes allow the characters' relationship to develop. One of the most potent themes in Out of Oz is the cost of protecting oneself and one's loved ones from war. Liir and his wife Candle have separated themselves from their daughter Rain to protect her, but when the time for a reunion comes, will they ever feel like a family again?

Other aspects of life during wartime are also considered. Maguire's Glinda, simultaneously daffy and canny as ever ("I'm not much for correspondence. I could never choose the right stationery, rainbows or butterflies."), is under house arrest as a possible traitor to Loyal Oz, and her mansion is being used by General Cherrystone as a base for some move against Munchkinland. Can she discover and circumvent his plans while protecting herself and her few remaining servants? Oz under Elphaba's brother, the allegedly divine Emperor Shell, is a dangerous place to live, but Munchkinland is no better. The witch Mombey holds power there, and as a comical yet deadly show trial demonstrates, is prepared to be as ruthless as her enemies. The book of magic known as the Grimmerie could bring the conflict to a decisive end, but it's far from clear that either side deserves to win, or that there's any good result on the horizon for the ordinary people of Oz.

These situations evolve in a slow but satisfying manner, leading up to an ending (one aspect of which readers of Baum's other Oz books will see coming) that strikes the right balance between resolution and ambiguity. Tongue-in-cheek references to the original Oz, both book and movie, and other children's classics complement the tart dialogue. ("Sister Apothecaire. As I live and breathe. I thought you'd taken a vow of chastity?" "I accidentally left it behind in the mauntery when you carried me off in that cart six months ago. Oh well. Whoever finds it can keep it; I'm through with it. Anyway, mind your own beeswax.") But it's the characters who make Out of Oz enjoyable: Liir, goodhearted but possibly not strong and wise enough; Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, less cowardly than aware of past mistakes and eager to protect those he loves; Little Daffy, formerly Sister Apothecaire, and her irascible husband, the dwarf in charge of the Clock of the Time Dragon; and of course Rain, a solitary and tough-minded child interested in the natural world but uncertain of the worth of human trust and love. Military pursuit, kidnapping, and death enforce terrible separations and give the bonds of loyalty a pain equal to their pleasure, but Rain and the others learn how to live in a world where nothing is certain, a world very like our own. For readers who have come to love his strange but recognizable milieu and its flawed, ambiguous characters, Maguire's Out of Oz is a delightful lingering farewell.

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