Out of Oz, the supposedly final book in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, begins, as its title notes, out of Oz, as Dorothy finds herself traveling to San Francisco with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. It’s a problematic trip: the three can’t afford it, but Dorothy, like many of us, has never quite been able to forget Oz, even the more brutal Oz of Maguire’s depiction, and her aunt and uncle are hoping to distract her. It’s a nice idea, but this being Dorothy, she naturally tumbles right out of San Francisco and into Maguire’s dark take on the various Oz sequels. I did mention, dark. Oz is still not doing well, and if this book has considerably more jokes than its immediate two predecessors, it is still fundamentally bleak, and can sometimes make for uneasy reading.
If the first book of the series was a response to and retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the second and third books an uneasy continuation of that concept, Out of Oz is a direct response to and retelling of The Marvelous Land of Oz, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the books of that series, with a couple of scenes more or less pulled from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. In that sequel to his first book, L. Frank Baum laid the foundations for his later Oz novels, transforming his children’s fairy tale into a critique of American economics and politics, creating a final utopian paradise ruled by women who allocate resources freely and fairly. It is, of course, a fairyland, operated by magic, but like Ruth Plumly Thompson before him, Maguire cannot bring himself to believe that this would actually work.
So Maguire presents his alternate view of what would happen to an Emerald City threatened by women: instead of flight, the male rulers attack. Glinda is placed under house arrest and forced to live with, gasp, fewer servants, and the Emerald City’s armies prepare to attack the Munchkins, now led by Mombey and General Jinjuria. In an echo of real world conflicts, the Emerald City’s armies also work to control the water resources of Oz. And to drive the gender point home, minor characters in the novel comment on the gender disparity.
Wandering around in this conflict and trying, for the most part, to avoid it are some of the central figures of the series: Liir, who legally could seize control of Munchkinland; Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, who continues to observe the conflict from both human and Animal perspectives; that motley crew sadly trotting around with the Clock of the Time Dragon; and above all, Rain, granddaughter of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, whose life has been spent in hiding. And in a touch that will delight fans of the Wicked series, nearly every still living character from the earlier books interacts with these three at one time or another, in at least a cameo appearance and even the dead characters are referenced here and there. And in a touch that will delight fans of the original series, Maguire takes time to reference several of the more minor if beloved characters from the original series, in usually hilarious moments and a chapter title that had me giggling out loud. (Still. Poor Jack Pumpkinhead. Sniffle.)
My hands down favorite moment of the book, however, involves none of this: it’s the moment when Dorothy is finally, finally, put on trial for all of the hell she has brought to Oz. Maguire has a lot of glee during this scene, and I found myself joining in. Other highlights include Maguire’s usual brilliant wordplay, here highlighted with jokes and references to numerous other classics of children’s literature, the 1939 MGM The Wizard of Oz film, a certain other little book related to a film released by MGM that same year, and a sly reference to a certain set of forty children’s books and more specific references to a few of the Ruth Plumly Thompson books and, to my genuine surprise, Jack Snow’s The Shaggy Man of Oz.
But the focus remains on questioning the ideas of the Oz that Baum created, that utopian paradise with its planned economy, that so welcomed misfits and those who could find no other home. As I noted, Out of Oz is a deliberate response to these later books, which assumed that in a fairyland, people would willingly submit to the rule of a fairy and a sorceress, with the occasional assistance from a humbug wizard hailing from another country, young human girls, a thief, and various inhuman if entertaining characters. In this Oz, the rulers planned resources for the common good, insuring that everyone in Oz had everything needed and wanted without money.
Even Baum’s direct successors often had problems accepting this, with several Royal Historians quietly reintroducing the thought of money, greed and economic stress to their Oz books. Maguire here focuses on the reaction of locals to hearing that their water will be redistributed. It’s not pretty. He shows the aftermath, and the resentment of cultures forced to join a centralized economy, and the way some marginalized members might just turn to drug dealing, and others might just question whether or not they belong in Oz or not.
Maguire also questions Baum’s cheerful assumption that characters unable to age for magical reasons will choose to go on marvelous adventures and throw large parties with fabulous food. That is, admittedly, what I would like to do, but as Maguire notes, aging at a different rate than others around you even if the others are in different magical countries can be painful and bewildering, and can cause painful, bewildering emotional reactions including a desire to withdraw from the world. As can merely growing up.
Because this is an Oz where characters must face death, aging, and crossing from childhood to adulthood. Rarely the concern of the original series (the theme appears only in three books, if that), it takes central place here, as Rain struggles with growing up, and other characters face a funeral scene. And this is an Oz where even a granddaughter of a witch must create her own ending even as she, and everyone else, wonder if they have been given any real choices at all. The Cowardly Lion argues yes, saying that anything else is a copout, but others, including Rain, are less certain, feeling controlled by events they could not control. And Maguire provides no easy answers: Rain may have been temporarily abandoned by her parents either because, as the granddaughter of a witch and heir to powerful political interests, it was in her own best interest, or because her parents could not face their responsibilities, but regardless of which, her personality has been shaped by that abandonment. (The tense relationship caused by these choices is handled well.)
I suppose it helps that this is also an Oz where characters can and do fall in love but the chief romance of the book is uncertain and bittersweet, and most of the other romances (with one major exception) bring both joy and pain.
The same joy and pain, I’m beginning to feel, that Maguire feels about Oz. Because, oddly enough, for a book where Maguire is supposedly saying goodbye to Oz, it focuses far more on the original Oz books than any of the previous books in the series, with direct references to far more of the original characters. And, without giving too much away, the last few pages seem to suggest that Maguire found it very hard to say goodbye one of three reasons why I can’t really believe that this will be the last book of his series. (The other two are, in order, money, and the fact that none of the previous Royal Historians could really bring themselves to abandon Oz either, even after trying to.) This may also explain why nearly every still living character from the series, no matter how minor, manages to squeak in at least a mention here and there (as do many of the dead characters); it’s both a farewell, and a difficulty in letting go.
I realize, in writing about this, that I’ve spent much of this post comparing the two series instead of focuing just on this book alone, but, much like Wicked did, Out of Oz almost seems to be demanding this comparison. So, to compare: Out of Oz is definitely better written and more thoughtful than most of the Famous Forty books, addressing and smoothing out inconsistencies, with a deeply realized secondary world glimmering with magic, and with thoughtful takes on gender relationships, marriage, death, bisexuality and transgender issues. I think that fans of the Wicked series will find this either the best or second best book of the series (mostly because of the jokes, but also because of a few nods to fans here and there).
But for all that, once again I find myself admiring this book, laughing with and at it, but not loving it. This is a cold Oz, a brilliant Oz, an Oz painfully and realistically brutal to its characters, an Oz with an adorable little otter and witty dialogue and hilariously dirty Oz limericks, but it is not an Oz I can love.
Note: I highly recommend reading at least the Wicked series before tackling this book. Maguire does provide brief summaries of the previous books, but much of the fun comes from the minor plot points and characters not mentioned in the first three books. Reading at least The Marvelous Land of Oz beforehand will also help in understanding other parts of the book and I promise, for those who reach the third quarter of the novel and want to start hitting me for saying that, it’s not as much of a spoiler as you might think.