So like, I finally read this book I've been meaning to get around to reading, and it's totally Wicked (sorry, I couldn't resist)!
How do you turn one of the most reviled characters in our collective consciousness into a sympathetic character? If you're Gregory Maguire, you do it cleverly and ingeniously. Maguire is making a habit of turning fairy tales sideways, and Wicked is the first of them I've read (it also recently became a musical). The basic concept of the book is that The Wicked Witch of the West, the villain in Baum's The Wizard of Oz, was a complex but well-meaning character who happened to be born with green skin and an allergy to water. The story we all know doesn't touch on who the Witch was, or how she came to be a wicked witch. For that matter, we know nothing of the great and terrible Wizard of Oz (if you recall how he greeted Dorothy) -- why did he hide his real identity, and how did a guy from Kansas end up ruling a foregin land? The book begins with a chapter that chronologically would belong near the end of the book, wherein the Witch eavesdrops upon Dorothy and her companions discussing what drives the Wicked Witch of the West, her psychology and sexuality, the rumors and innuendo. Maguire's point is a simple one, that we don't really know the first thing about her.
Maguire has constructed a rich tapestry of backstory to fill in such gaps, explaining how Elphaba (the Witch's given name) became who she was. In college, Elphaba, the poor daughter of a rich girl whose fidelity to her husband (a country minister) is suspect, rooms with shallow and upper crust Galinda, who as we all know will become the Good Witch Glinda. During their college days, we see Elphaba as a champion of social justice, distressed most of all by seeing the Wizard taking away the rights of Animals (not regular animals, designated by lower case, but those who can think, such as the Lion that ultimately accompanies Dorothy) -- these are sentient beasts, but by fiat from the Emerald City, their rights are being taken away. Elphaba ultimately drops out of school once she concludes that the school's head is part of the problem, and goes underground to combat the evil in the land. Even though disaster strikes, driving her to a convent for years of escape from the outside world, she recovers, eventually finding her way to a fortress in the western part of Oz, where she inevitably grows in power and becomes known as the Wicked Witch of the West.
As suggested above, the politics of Oz play a key role in the story, helping us understand the Witch's motives, the point being that what seems "Wicked" may appear that way because one lacks context (and also, what may appear good may not be, for the same reason). Indeed, there is much discussion on the nature of evil, certainly an appropriate one given the central character.
It's hard to tell a story when the reader knows the conclusion, but Maguire does a wonderful job. Interestingly, while he weaved a wonderful world, he failed to account for one of the givens in the story, the Scarecrow. The story introduces us to mechanical creatures, and the Tin Man could be one. The Lion is an Animal (unlike, Toto, who is a lower-case animal). But in this world where Maguire has free rein to explain the Scarecrow's origins, all Maguire does is acknowledge the Witch's confusion at his very existence. Still, the story is quite engaging, and left me saddened at Elphaba's demise. It turns out that Maguire is releasing a sequel in a couple of weeks, entitled Son of a Witch -- I have a feeling I'll be reading it.