If you have somehow avoided the presence of this work in popular culture, it can be summed up as a retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the source material, this work is political. Unlike the source material, Wicked is not a children’s story.
The book starts far removed from the events of the original, before even the Wicked Witch of the West is born. We get to see her parents, their passions and faults, and how that shaped her childhood. The Witch Elphaba’s skin was green from birth, not some attribute of her witchiness. In fact we learn later that it is probably the result of having parents from two different worlds, even though neither her mother nor biological father was green. That green otherness influenced the whole path of her life. We see that in her childhood her father used it to try to win religious converts.
By the time she was off to school she is ill-equipped to navigate the social structure among the other young girls. Her relationship with her roommate, Galinda, starts of fairly antagonistic but does eventually become something warmer. During their time at school, Elphaba becomes interested in Animal rights. In Oz, animals are normal beasts, but Animals have consciousness and sentience. This has social and political implications since the Wizard has started slowly stripping Animals of their rights and displacing them out of society. We start to see the direct impacts of the Wizard’s rule. Elphaba and several friends from the boys’ section of the school work together to help Dr. Dillamond, a Goat, try to show that there is no inherent difference between Animals and humans. Their hope is that if they can show this to the Wizard he will stop treating them so poorly. Sadly the Goat professor is murdered before he can complete his work.
At this point Elphaba, her sister Nessarose, and Glinda are summoned to a meeting with their school headmistress, Madame Morrible. She attempts to conscript them into sorcerous service in the name of the Wizard. She also was the one who had Dr. Dillamond killed. They try to take Dr. Dillamond’s evidence directly to the Wizard, but fail to make any impact. Elphaba becomes radicalized at this point and leaves to join a resistance movement against him, while her sister and friend seemingly fall into the roles Morrible set out for them.
While she is working for the resistance, Elphaba has an affair with Fiyero, who she knew from school. He ends up murdered at the hands of the Wizard’s enforcers because of it. Much of the rest of the book is Elphaba’s journey seeking forgiveness from Fiyero’s family, and slow acceptance of what happened and what the consequences were. For me that is where the heart of this story lies. Why do we have such a need for absolution? How can we give it to others when we can’t for ourselves? Why does it drive us to hope for impossible things?
In the end it is the audacity of innocent Dorothy, asking for forgiveness for the death of Nessarose, that leads to the death of the Witch of the West. Now Dorothy has killed both sisters, and must go out into the world with no one left to offer forgiveness for it. Elphaba saw herself in Dorothy, and it makes you wonder what will become of her now.
I greatly enjoyed this book. My biggest complaint has to do with timing. We have a long time to see the life that led Elphaba to become the Wicked Witch. However that final transition into the part of the story that lines up with the original feels a bit jagged. Perhaps the author has made her too sympathetic, so that by the end I had a hard time reconciling the relatively quick shift to her full Witchdom. Even though you know how this story ends before it even begins, you end up exhausted and heartbroken when you get there.
TL;DR: A wicked re-telling of the Oz story. Absolutely worth the read.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Rating: 4/5 stars
Next up: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury