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Was: a novel Paperback – August 11, 2015

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ryman's darkly imaginative, almost surreal improvisation on L. Frank Baum's Oz books combines a stunning portrayal of child abuse, Wizard of Oz film lore and a polyphonic meditation on the psychological burden of the past.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

The Scarecrow of Oz dying of AIDS in Santa Monica? Uncle Henry a child abuser? Dorothy, grown old and crazy, wearing out her last days in a Kansas nursing home? It's all here, in this magically revisionist fantasy on the themes from The Wizard of Oz. For Dorothy Gael (not a misprint), life with Uncle Henry and Aunty Em is no bed of roses: Bible-thumping Emma Gulch is as austere (though not as nasty) as Margaret Hamilton, and her foul- smelling husband's sexual assaults send his unhappy niece over the line into helpless rage at her own wickedness and sullen bullying of the other pupils in nearby Manhattan, Kansas. Despite a brush with salvation (represented by substitute teacher L. Frank Baum), she spirals down to madness courtesy of a climactic twister, only to emerge 70 years later as Dynamite Dottie, terror of her nursing home, where youthful orderly Bill Davison, pierced by her zest for making snow angels and her visions of a happiness she never lived, throws over his joyless fianc‚e and becomes a psychological therapist. Meanwhile, in intervening episodes in 1927 and 1939, Frances Gumm loses her family and her sense of self as she's transformed into The Kid, Judy Garland; and between 1956 and 1989, a little boy named Jonathan, whose imaginary childhood friends were the Oz people, grows up to have his chance to play the Scarecrow dashed by the AIDS that will draw him to Kansas--with counselor Davison in pursuit--in the hope of finding Dorothy's 1880's home and making it, however briefly, his own. This tale of homes lost and sought, potentially so sentimental, gets a powerful charge from Ryman's patient use of homely detail in establishing Dorothy's and Jonathan's childhood perspectives, and from the shocking effects of transforming cultural icons, especially in detailing Dorothy's sexual abuse. Science-fiction author Ryman (The Child Garden, 1990) takes a giant step forward with this mixture of history, fantasy, and cultural myth--all yoked together by the question of whether you can ever really go home. -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Small Beer Press; 20th Anniversary Edition edition (August 11, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781931520737
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931520737
  • ASIN: 1931520739
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #244,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Geoff Ryman is a Canadian living in the United Kingdom. His first book based on events in Cambodia was published in 1985, the award-winning The Unconquered Country. The King's Last Song was inspired by a visit to an Australian archaeological dig at Angkor Wat in 2000. He has been a regular visitor since, teaching writing workshops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap twice, and publishing three further novellas set in Cambodia. In Britain he produced documentaries for Resonance FM, London, on Cambodian Arts. He has published nine other books and won fourteen awards. He teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Traveler on January 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
Like many people, I read "Was" immediately after "Wicked."

Both books cover the same topic ("The Wizard of Oz") but they have different approaches, different agendas, different topics entirely. They're both excellent and really shouldn't be compared.

Whereas "Wicked" gives us a non-traditional view of what's _inside_ Oz, "Was" takes us into the more disturbing realms of reality. We see Dorothy as a human placed in horrible circumstances. We get a glimpse behind the curtain to see the suffering of "Judy Garland." And then Ryman brings it all together with a modern day scarecrow dying of AIDS.

"Wicked" was a fantastic metaphor. It made you think. It gave us imagery to wonder at and ponder. "Was" strips most of that away and attempts to give us a possible story behind the metaphor. As in, if Dorothy was a real person what would she be like?

"Was" is not light reading. It's not intended to be. If you like your fiction to stay out of the shadowy corners of human existence you should avoid this book completely. If, however, you'd like to see a dark vision of reality about Oz give "Was" a try.

It's unfortunate that this book gets slammed for what it clearly was never intended to be - like "Wicked." Both books are great. But they have different fish to fry.

I only give the book four stars because Ryman could have have done a better job in his characterization. Still, it's a very good book and will be one of the rare fiction titles that I plan to keep on my shelf indefinitely.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A. Reid VINE VOICE on January 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
This dense and disturbing novel offers a look into the life of one Dorothy Gael of Kansas, Ryman's imaginary inspiration for the well-loved Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, and into a bevy of other characters whose lives are touched (directly or indirectly) by her. His Dorothy doesn't have a happy story, and for most of the novel misery carries the day. It is softened by the depths of character and a few moving exemplars of compassion. Wrapped within the novel is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the book and the movie-from its disreputable and unsavory youth to its arrival as a full-blown American classic.

"Was" is not going to be universally appreciated. It is difficult. More than once I found myself reminded of James Joyce; there's a lot going on, and the language isn't always easy to penetrate. The book has something to say about human nature, the way the world and other people break us. Society's response to difference and pain. Homosexuality, child abuse, even the enfeeblement of the aged-the miseries of the human condition are shunned for their power to infect.

I can't say that I always enjoyed this book, though I'm glad I read it. I found it very well written. The characters were in my opinion completely believable. Ryman exhibits a compassion for everyone he writes here, from the least sympathetic to the most. He seems to really understand what drives human beings to the ways they behave, and, unlike the society he represents, he's willing to look at them unflinchingly. I did find the narrative jumps sometimes a little tough to follow; the book required more work than it always rewarded in that regard. But that's in keeping with the rest of this novel, which doesn't spoon-feed you answers. What's the purpose of all this misery?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Theresa Mcdonald on January 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
A few years ago I read Gregory Maguire's take on the Wizard of Oz story in "Wicked" and was entranced with it. When I learned of the existance of "Was" I was excited to see someone else's take on twisting this story. I was not dissappointed. This is an incredibly creative, well written book. It was one of those rare gems in reading where I was completely transported into the pages and felt like I was there with the characters. The parts of the book set in pioneer times were my favorite and made me feel the way I used to feel as a child when I first fell in love with reading. I would recommend this book to everyone. The only reason I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 was because the entire book was so stellar and then I felt the ending was just too abrupt and anti-climatic.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Karen Bowe on December 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
Everyone loves the Wizard of Oz! Geoff Ryman returns us to childhood, the time when the distinction between art and reality was not so clear. He reminds of the time when seeing a movie like the Wizard of Oz was so powerful that it changed our lives, by crawling up into our tiny heads and never coming down. The Wizard of Oz and films like it are to our culture what the Ramayana is to India; it is a narrative shared by the whole culture together, an epic, a source of references that can lead to mutual understanding, an art form that endlessly gives rise to more and more beautiful art. What is in this book? The true, tragic story of Dorothy; real Munchkins and their make-up artist; a man trying to complete a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Ozism before the disease he carries kills him. Geoff Ryman writes like a delirious angel. I read this book more than three years ago and it still haunts me.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
Like several others here, I read this book some years ago, soon after it was published, and it has haunted me ever since. It's one of the finest novels I've ever read. I recommend it to everyone.
But unlike some others who've reviewed it here, I have no particular interest in "The Wizard of Oz"--and I don't think that's what the book is about at all. The book is about the search for what was, for home, for safety, for love. It's about how we spend our lives yearning for that perfect security that we had, or think we had, or never had but imagine and long for. About loss--of mother, love, home--and the ways we try to make up for all the losses that accumulate as we age. That's why it is so moving, and why it haunts all who read it. Because everyone has a "was" lingering in memory or subconscious.
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