In his introduction to the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum described his novel as “a modernized fairy tale,” crafted to please rather than to terrify, “in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”
Many critics over the last century have pointed out that Baum was essentially deluding himself—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, along with the next 13 Oz books that Baum penned and more than 40 written by subsequent authors, is full of what Maria Tatar calls “jolts of horror,” not the least of which is the climactic realization that the Wizard himself is a fraud. Another deception in Baum’s novel that didn’t make it into the 1939 film: The Emerald City isn’t even emerald, a trick that only succeeds when everyone in the city wears identical pairs of green-tinted glasses. Fantasy, Baum suggests—even while praising its harmless virtues—is only a temporary illusion.
In Geoff Ryman’s unauthorized Oz riff Was, originally published in 1992 and due to be reissued this summer by the excellent fantasy publisher Small Beer Press, readers are urged to remove the green-tinged glasses. Ryman is not interested in leaving out the heartaches and nightmares, and what he suggests instead is that fantasy should be the lens through which we examine, and not cover up, those nightmares.
Was is a realistic novel that spans more than 100 years and several Western and Midwestern states. It links Jonathan, an Oz buff and B-movie actor dying of AIDS in 1989; a youthful Frances Ethel Gumm (or as the world would come to know her, Judy Garland); and Dorothy Gael, a young girl sent to live with her grim Aunt Emma Gulch and abusive Uncle Henry on a Kansas farm in the late 1800s. Oz does not exist in Ryman’s novel as a literal fairyland, but as the land of “Was,” Dorothy’s moniker for the aching nostalgia that each character has for a home that no longer exists. There really isn’t any place like home, the Dorothy of 1876 thinks, seeing a sampler with the familiar phrase cheerfully stitched. “Not anywhere.”
Ryman’s conceit is that Baum himself, who enters the story as a dandified substitute teacher, briefly meets the emotionally scarred Dorothy and decides to give her a better life on the page. Thus, in Ryman’s novel, Baum’s Dorothy Gale is really Dorothy Gael, and through a series of opportune connections, Jonathan tracks down her Kansas home on a mission to disappear into his own land of Was before the cyclone of AIDs whisks him away. This is a fine explanation, and some readers will be more than satisfied to connect the dots. But there are also more subtle shimmers of Oz in Dorothy’s life, and it’s gratifying as a reader, for example, to see how intricately linked Jonathan is to the Scarecrow, both through his near-involvement with a celebrity concert performance of The Wizard of Oz (the best excuse I’ve ever read for the appearance of Cher in a novel), and his gangly stature and delicate state of mind. We fear for him when he gets too close to the flames.
There’s a tendency in prequels and sequels and the like to make things tidy, which Ryman’s proliferations of Dorothys and Scarecrows is not. Take for example Sam Raimi’s recent blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful, which can’t help but provide, with formulaic precision, an explanation for why the Wicked Witch is not only wicked, but green. While Ryman solves a few similar equations for us, he also suggests that this one-for-one treatment is not a complete or rewarding way to approach a story that has such deep roots in so many childhoods. This isn’t to say that an adaptation in which all loose ends are tied up is wrong, per se—but it can be boring. And, Ryman might argue, such an adaptation doesn’t say a thing about our own fractured nature as story-hungry characters.
Which is why, although Ryman’s Aunty Em has a great deal of Wicked Witch in her (a sharp-nosed, gray-toothed woman, she burns Dorothy’s clothes to get rid of the diphtheria, kills Toto, and looks the other way when Uncle Henry becomes far too fond), there’s no bright equal sign between her and Margaret Hamilton’s cackling green Wicked Witch of the 1939 film, or even the squat, eye-patched Wicked Witch from W.W. Denslow’s illustrations for the 1900 novel. She’s Dorothy’s only mother, and so the two share a thorny but ultimately loving relationship. Mothers and witches are often indistinguishable in Ryman’s novel, and they too know the land of Was, a happy time that they wish they could click their heels to find again.
In Was, no one character’s nostalgic fantasy goes uncomplicated by the reality of the person sharing the page with him. Dorothy’s memories of a joyful home are soiled by Em’s recollections of her sister’s marriage to Dorothy’s father, who left before the diphtheria came. Nostalgia is not romanticized as an escape from reality that saves Jonathan or Dorothy from the nightmares in their lives; instead, nostalgic fantasy allows the characters a way to envision their lives as something different. Fantasy is two things at once in Was: the past, and what lies behind the curtain of the present. These characters spend their lives trying to pull the curtain back, and it’s that struggle, if not the achievement of an actual escape, that keeps them from breaking.
Was argues that fantasy is a way to explore the ineffable, the grotesque that persists even when we try to hide the world with a pair of green-tinted glasses. The nightmare of AIDS looms behind the narrative; in the early 1990s, as J. Bryan Lowder noted in his essay on the role of camp in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, fantasy was “one answer to that terrible question … How do you survive a plague?” Twenty years later, though the conversation surrounding AIDS is growing tentatively more hopeful, Ryman’s insistence that we not ignore the heartache is just as relevant. “The world … needed to be haunted,” Dorothy tells us. “The land of Was was cradled in the arms of Now like a child. Was made Now tender.” Ryman reinforces this in his afterword: We can be blinded by personal history and the delusion of fantasy, he claims. The way to keep ourselves strong is not to brush aside either of these things, but to “use them against each other.”
In an era of bright, simple adaptations, Was is different—melancholy, beautiful, and yes, full of heartaches and nightmares. If we were to put those green glasses back on to block them out, we would leave ourselves knowing so much less about why such Technicolor stories matter to us, even long after childhood.
Was by Geoff Ryman. Small Beer Press.