I love musical theater. It is one of my passions and almost exclusively what fills up my iPod. When I first read that a new musical called Wicked was going to open on Broadway I became intrigued. The idea that Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West were once friends sounded fascinating. I soon learned that the show was based on the book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Before I even listened to the music from the show I decided to read the book on which it was based. I am so glad I did.
Drawing inspiration from both the Oz books written by L. Frank Baum and the film starring Judy Garland, Maguire weaves a dark and intriguing tale that follows the life of Elphaba. Elphaba, who’s name is derived from the initials of L. Frank Baum, was born with green skin and sharp teeth. When she goes to school at Shiz University she is assigned to be roommates with the rich and popular Galinda. In spite of a rough start, Elphaba is able to make some friends, but she also becomes embroiled in the fierce political debate over Animal rights. It is this political activism that makes her an enemy of the Wizard and leads to her eventual demise.
At it’s core Wicked is a classic tale of good and evil, but Maguire takes this idea and goes much deeper with it. He really delves into the motivations behind the actions people take and the question of whether or not good intentions mitigate bad actions or bad results. He takes a character we have known since childhood as being “wicked” and explores how and why she became known to be that way. In the end, he causes us to question whether or not she is, in fact, wicked.
Maguire also uses the political conflict surrounding the Animals to address issues of discrimination and subjugation. The Animals are different from ordinary animals in that they are sentient beings who can actually talk. In his story there are political factions that wish to treat the Animals as animals and take away their rights which are equal with humans. As the novel progresses the climate gradually grows less favorable for Animals through subtle changes in policies and legalized discrimination. It is a very interesting facet of the book and one that can be related to many current minorities that still face discrimination around the world.
As much as I love this book I feel I should offer a word of caution. At times the story is very dark and very bizarre. Unlike the material on which it is based this book is in no way intended for children or immature readers. There are a few scenes that are, quite frankly, twisted and perverted. It all lends itself to create a very specific tone to the book and to show that the land of Oz is far less than idyllic. I know several people who could not get through the book because of this darkness, but all I know who were able to make it through loved it.
Gregory Maguire created one of the most memorable characters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting when he created Elphaba. Her story was one of those that moved me deep within and stayed with me, not for a few days, but for weeks. Her life was doomed to be tragic from the start and my heart ached for her throughout. But tragedy is often where the most beautiful stories lie, and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is one of those instances.
What about you? Have you read Maguire’s tale of the Wicked Witch? If so, what did you think? What are some books you have read that stayed with you in the way this stayed with me? Let me know in the comments!