Gregory Maguire’s ‘Out of Oz’ ends the great and powerful ‘Wicked Years’

October 30, 2011

With “Out of Oz,” the fourth and final novel in the sequence that began with his mega-selling “Wicked,” Gregory Maguire concludes the “Wicked Years,” one of the most audacious and successful fantasy series of the past few decades. A revisionist and very adult take on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (with numerous cheeky references to the 1939 movie), Maguire’s masterwork belongs to the burgeoning subgenre that might be called radical American fantasy — books such as Peter S. Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn,” John Crowley’s “Little, Big,” George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones,” Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” The works riff on classic novels even as they offer a sharp corrective to the prescriptive uses J.R.R. Tolkien assigned to fantasy: recovery, escape and consolation.

Baum’s Oz novels, although written for children, were radical in their depictions of robots, gender transformations and patchwork beings assembled from animals and humans. This is the Oz that Maguire memorably reinterprets. While his books don’t shy away from satire and political and social commentary, his characters — human and nonhuman — are so beautifully drawn that a reader never catches the brimstone whiff of didacticism.

After a brief prologue wherein Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry pay an ill-timed visit to San Francisco, “Out of Oz” turns to Lady Glinda Chuffrey (a.k.a. the Good Witch of the South), a Munchkinland aristo whose stately home has been requisitioned by occupying forces from the Emerald City. The age-old grievances of Oz’s various countries and political factions are as grim and violent as those of our world: This is an Oz where torture, imprisonment and weapons of mass destruction come into play, even if the WMD are dragons.

Rain, a young broomgirl, is one of the few household staff members whom Glinda retains after the occupation. Scruffy, illiterate and emotionally locked down, Rain soon takes her place at the center of Maguire’s novel. She has an uncanny gift for invoking the power of the Grimmerie, a magical book sought by Oz’s warring rulers. Worse, she might have a claim to the thrones of both Loyal Oz and Munchkinland. She quickly finds herself a fugitive, one of the Yellow Brick Road irregulars, a group whose members include Sir Brr, the Cowardly Lion; Liir, son of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West; Nor, an anguished princess who underwent torture; a randy Munchkin and her husband; and a mysterious boy who becomes the teenage Rain’s lover.

Oh, and that annoying Dorothy, whose unexpected, unwanted return leads to her trial for the murder of Elphaba and her sister (the one who got squashed by that Kansas farmhouse).

No summary could do justice to Maguire’s novel, which is hilarious, heart-wrenching and extremely poignant in its ending. Readers familiar with Baum’s books will delight in how Maguire rings the changes upon them. Others might never be able to hear “Over the Rainbow” again without wincing. The greatest fantasy series make one want to read them again. That’s what I intend to do with this one.

Hand’s “Radiant Days,” a young adult novel about poet Arthur Rimbaud, will be published early next year.

OUT OF OZ

By Gregory Maguire

Morrow. 568 pp. $26.99

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