Was by Geoff Ryman

DATE FINISHED: April 23rd, 2012

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Orphaned Dorothy Gael is raised by her Aunt and Uncle in a bleak Kansas farmhouse of the 1870s.  Her unhappy life is filled with thankless chores, society visits with Aunty Em, the long trek to school, and the unwanted attentions of Uncle Henry.  Only substitute teacher Frank offers any hope of salvation, through the power of imagination.  Interwoven with Dorothy’s story is that of young Frances Gumm, later to become Judy Garland immortalising Dorothy in glorious technicolour, as well as that of a young man called Jonathan who becomes obsessed with Dorothy as his own life slips away.

THOUGHTS:   This novel is at its strongest when focusing on the past, the land of Was.  The bulk of the story is that of Dorothy Gael, although her Aunt, Emma Branscomb/Gulch is an equally interesting character, and watching her story emerge is perhaps just as fascinating.  Although the period and lifestyle is bleak, Ryman paints their grey life in colour with lots of detail and humanity, and the Wizard of Oz parallels are woven into the narrative quite skilfully, and not at all heavy-handed.  The sections relating to Frances Gumm and later the filming of the Wizard of Oz movie are also actually quite poignant, up to and including the point where an aged and institutionalised Dorothy watches the film for the first time.

This was my second reading of this book, and unfortunately, I was not quite as convinced second time around that the outer framework of Jonathan’s story really came together in the same way as the other strands.  As he dug out further historical detail about Dorothy and her place in the Kansas landscape I felt this could have been woven in more subtly, and his own character’s inclusion at all seemed something of a cliche.  Luckily, this does not completely overshadow the power of the story which precedes it, although I do feel it dilutes it somewhat.  What does work is Ryman’s demonstration of the passage of time and the developments that can occur within a lifetime; and perhaps more importantly, how easy, important, or maybe even necessary it might be to mythologise a life.  Interestingly, this is a completely different ‘message’ than I drew from my first reading of the book, so from that perspective, it definitely stands the test of time, and warrants further reading.

FOLLOWING ON:  Although written for a young adult market, Wendy by Karen Wallace is similarly successful in re-writing Peter Pan into a historical, social and psychological context.  Wicked by Gregory Maguire is the obvious reference for an alternative re-interpretation of Oz.


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