Did you ever read or watch The Wizard of Oz and wonder what the the Wicked Witch of the North’s story was? In Gregory Maguire’s Oz, Elphaba, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West, is not wicked. Instead she’s an insecure and unfortunately green political radical out to unseat the tyrannical Wizard.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West brings new life to Oz. Maguire fleshes out the old technicolor Oz to give us a more realistic magical land with a myriad of peoples and places. It’s a world as complex as our own, and not so unlike it, with different political and royal factions, classes and races, and religions (including an ancient pagan religion supplanted by the new).
The story begins with the mysterious conditions surrounding Elphaba’s prophetic birth against a changing political climate. You’d think in a world of magic and talking animals, green skin might be normal, but it’s not. Elphaba is different. Her green skin is interpreted by her alcoholic mother and minister father as punishment for their sins. Her green skin and her studious and sensitive nature set her apart from her college peers, particularly her roommate, the lovely and charming Glinda. Even Elphaba’s relationship with her zealous sister Nessarose is strained. Elphaba’s life is one of disappointments and suffering interjected with a few moments of laughter and comfort in the arms of her nanny or her lover. Her demise comes at the hands of an innocent alien girl, a pawn in the Wizard’s intrigues.
Maguire’s weaves a fascinating story about genocide, religion, and the nature of evil. It’s ambitious and ultimately unsatisfying. The pacing can be frustratingly slow and the book asks more questions than it provides answers to. After nearly 400 pages of slow progress, the end comes quickly, predictably, and leaves readers wanting to know what happened to Elphaba internally. Nevertheless, Wicked is a story we’ve always wanted to hear and Maguire’s excellent portrayals of Elphaba, Glinda, Dorothy, and the rest of the characters make this excursion to Oz worthwhile.
Wicked has been adapted for the musical stage. It takes some sharp turns from the novel, but I found the musical’s ending far more satisfying.