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Was Hardcover – June 9, 1992

4.2 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a darkly imaginative, almost surreal improvisation on L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Dorothy Gael, an orphan churning with rage and self-hatred, is repeatedly sexually abused by her Uncle Henry on their Kansas farm. Sadistic, sanctimonious Aunty Em, who dislikes Dorothy's dog Toto, looks the other way. Rewriting the Oz story as a somber gothic fantasy rich in period detail, Ryman ( The Child Garden ) casts Baum as a substitute teacher who rescues Dorothy from life as a prostitute on the 1880s Kansas frontier. But Dorothy ends up in a mental institution where, as Old Doty, she will be discovered in 1956 by Bill Davison, a caring attendant. In a parallel story set in the 1980s, Jonathan, a gay, Canadian-born horror-film actor dying of AIDS, enters therapy with Bill, now a Los Angeles psychiatrist, who instructs him to visualize that he's in Oz to reenact a childhood obsession. Desperately seeking home, various characters--both real (Judy Garland) and fictional--follow the yellow brick roads of their heart's desires and converge in Kansas. Brilliantly inventive, Was ("a place that never goes away") combines a stunning portrayal of child abuse, Wizard of Oz film lore and a polyphonic meditation on the psychological burden of the past.
Copyright 1992 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 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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 371 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (June 9, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679404295
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679404293
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,283,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Was" is a memorable take on "The Wizard of Oz." It connects Dorothy Gael of Kansas and Oz author L. Frank Baum with the actress Judy Garland and two men in more recent times, a psychiatrist named Bill who met the elderly Dorothy, and Jonathan, a young man struggling with AIDS, searching for both Dorothy and that elusive rainbow.

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."
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