3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Published in 1995 by HarperCollins.

“To the grim poor there need be no pour quoi tale about where evil arises; it just arises; it always is. One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her – is it ever the right choice? Does the Devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil? It is at the very least a question of definitions.”

I like stories that unravel myths, fairy tales, and moral fables. I applaud the successful taking of an origin story, turning on its head and shaking it, emptying its pockets of archetypal copper pieces, of stereotypical silver doubloons. We have all been fed a steady diet of literary truths, whether or not we’ve ever picked up a book of our own volition. They surround us, circling in the air. They are the nursery rhymes our mothers and fathers murmured as they tucked us into bed. They are the talismans, artifacts and artifices we wear around our necks: our religious symbolism, our ethnic pride, our clannish representations of belonging. Old truths, especially those about good and evil, either comfort or dismay us accordingly. Most people are not concerned with questioning or interrogating the truths we’ve been told about the nature of sin versus virtue. Most people would be profoundly uncomfortable with even the suggestion that good and evil can be mutual partners in a never-ending symbiotic tango.

Such people will probably reject the premise of Wicked out of hand… and will not get past the first few chapters. Those who do not—those who are willing to have their preconceptions challenged—will fare far better. For readers predisposed to an appreciation of magic with a distinct adult rating: this is your stop.

Wicked is scripted, at a cursory glance, on the barebones of the world contained in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Land of Oz that we encounter in Maguire’s novel is of his own geographical hand, drawn with detailed cartographic attention to specifics, peculiarities, the crafting of a believable and compelling otherworld. Oz is a land of wildly disparate regions and territories: the vast, windswept deserts of the Vinkus, the industrially prosperous Gillikinese state, the marshlands and stilt-legged dwellings of Quadling County, the prairie stead of Munchkinland. All paths and roads, including those made of yellow brick, lead to the glinting urban landscape of the Emerald City, where very little is ever as it seems.

The novel’s main narrative hinges on Elphaba, a green-skinned, clever, antisocial girl born to the Munchkinlander couple of itinerant preacher Frexspar and his beautiful, restless wife, Melena Thropp. Elphaba’s story—her strange, largely friendless childhood in Munchkinland, her rebellious, iconoclastic years at Shiz University, her encounters with condemnation, curiosity, concern and confusion all – these inform the heart of the book, but are not on their own, as it were, their vital organ. The voice of the novel is contained in other major characters (and periodic narrators) as well: in the tragicomedic maturing of beautiful Galinda, in the wise, brash motives of Fiyero, in the restless longings of Melena, the surprising intelligence of Sarima, the love-struck earnestness of Boq. Wicked‘s five sections—Munchkinlanders; Gillikin; City of Emeralds; Into the Vinkus; The Murder and its Afterlife—span several generations. Lives are lost, friendships are won, friendships and kinships made, shattered, found in unlikely places. Wars are waged, both political and personal; victims and villains work together in close quarters. Maguire is no respecter of tidy, seamless resolutions, or neatly pigeonholed plots. Characters’ lives run messily into each others’. This is no singular tale of a warty witch wreaking vengeance on a Kansas ingénue, though if you look for that single-mindedly, you will doubtless find it. The novel leaves itself dangerously, (or wonderfully) ambiguous on many points about which most readers will likely yearn for specificity. You would be hard-pressed to not find a concern that didn’t prick directly and perhaps uncomfortably at your personal conscience in these pages.

What makes us human, and how do we advocate our superiority over animals? What about that pesky infidelity business, when confronted with the possibility of true connection—or just a really good meeting of bodies, if not minds? When does sex stop being sexy and start being just damned strange? Do we prefer our prettiest society girls with or without a sobering grip on reality? What are the ethical implications of endowing mechanical creations with limited sentience, and forcing them to do our bidding? What makes one girl beautiful, and another… reprehensible?

Perhaps the most intriguing question of all lies in just how much we’re willing to do for a pair of gorgeous, self-validating shoes.

“She dropped her shyness like a nightgown, and in the liquid glare of sunlight on old boards she held up her hands – as if, in the terror of the upcoming skirmish, she had at last understood that she was beautiful. In her own way.”