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Was Paperback – May 1, 1993
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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.
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 fiance 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.
Top customer reviews
The story is very intricately structured. It switches between 1870s and `80s Kansas, California and MGM in the 1930s and `50s, Ontario in the 1960s and finally, Kansas again in 1989. It takes a while to see how all the characters and elements of the story fit together but has a very dramatic and moving climax.
The author depicts a hard, traumatic life on the prairie for young Dorothy which is later transformed and idealized by Baum into his immortal tale of Dorothy and the Wizard. Garland is seen, too, as emotionally scarred by her home life and the loss of her father. Jonathan was a sensitive child with a fascination for the movie "Oz" who has made pilgrimages to Garland sites. When he learns his doctor Bill met the real Dorothy, he sets out to find the original home of Dorothy, Aunty Em and Uncle Henry in rural Kansas.
As the title "Was" suggests, the story - multiple stories really - are nostalgic and even mournful in tone. Lost childhoods, harsh realities and the elusiveness of happy endings are dominant themes. For me it was almost like reading one of Thomas Hardy's tragic novels. I hope that doesn't put readers off. There is a beauty and depth and compassion to Ryman's writing that make the book very worthwhile. Highly recommended, especially for those who love the "Oz" tales and revisionist epics like "Wicked."
Geoff Ryman presents a harshly real-life, imaginary story surrounding to Dorothy of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Rather than an overdone retelling of the Oz story, Ryman explores a much more human question: why might the mind wish to escape its gray "Kansas" and pursue the magical color of Oz? This leads the reader into some of the hardest questions facing us as a society including death, mental illness, abuse, and sexual orientation.
Told from the perspectives of many characters (Judy Garland's makeup artist, a worker in a mental hospital, and Dorothy Gael herself), this novel has the reader wishing this WAS the true story behind Baum's classic novel and MGM's classic movie. Never have I seen an author provide more realistic insight into the minds of young children, victims of abuse, the terminally ill, and the clinically insane. "Was" is a fantastic blend of the beauty of fiction and the shattering honesty of biography. A truly excellent novel.
WAS mixes a historian's dedicated search for details with a fictional story that spans a century to create a sweeping novel of the American experience. Ryman focuses on the tragedy of his characters' lives to help us understand our collective need for a fairy land like OZ where love and kindness are the rule. Using carefully researched historical details Ryman builds a truly believable but sadly horrific story of a fictional Dorothy Gael of Kansas. Placing her in such accurate settings gives incredible power to her story and the stories of those her life inspires. Drawn into the vortex of her tragedy are a mixture of real and fictional characters including L. Frank Baum (the writer of the original Oz novels), the young Judy Garland, an actor with AIDS who is compelled to play the Scarecrow, and his psychotherapist who met the elderly Dorothy just before she dies. The story takes place in the 1870s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and the 1980s. Yet these disparate plots and eras are tied together wonderfully and all given a sense of reality based on the historic research that went into the book.
In a postscript called Reality Check at the end of the book the writer sorts out the historic from the fictional. Here he also talks a bit about the philosophy he has toward fantasy and realism, a theme that is constantly addressed throughout the novel. This is not about Oz, except as an ideal. The novel is about the tragedy of life, and it explores why the pain of our lives makes Oz so important to us all.