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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Baum and Maguire

I’ve been listening to A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. I had a long drive down to Mississippi over Thanksgiving, and I like to check out books on CD to occupy the time. In case you didn’t know, this is the third in a series of Maguire’s revisionist Oz histories, the first being Wicked, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, now a long-running Broadway play.

I hadn’t bothered to read Wicked, thinking I could pretty much predict where the joke would head. I’d already seen a similar jest – I’d imagined – in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Only shorter. And with pictures.

I now realize I’d misjudged. This book is beautifully, lyrically written, deeply and vividly imagined, funny and profound by turns. I think it might even be literature. I’m definitely going back and reading Wicked.

All this set me to thinking, if Maguire is such a talented and inventive writer – as he unmistakably is – why plough L Frank Baum’s territory? Why not strike out on his own acreage. One reason is probably the simple wicked pleasure of subverting a minor American classic. Another is that frankly Maguire must have realized that he could do it so much better. Make no mistake, Maguire is, like, ten times the writer Baum was. Baum’s writing is often stilted, contrived, and wooden. Maguire writes like a poet.

The other thing is, and I think this is what must draw a talent like Maguire, is how deeply weird the Oz books are. If you can get past Baum’s infelicitous prose, you will discover a world as odd and nightmarish as anything Lewis Carroll ever imagined.

Here’s a few characters from Baum’s pantheon of oddballs. Star with the Tin Woodman. In the original story, he’d been hexed while still flesh and blood, and swinging his ax, lops off his arm. Off he goes to the tin smith who makes him a new one. Next day, he lops off his other arm. Off to the tin smith. You get the idea. Finally, he chops off his own head. This, too, is replaced with tin. Then there’s Tip. Tip is an orphan boy, who at the end of the second book discovers – he’s actually a little girl! He’s Ozma of Oz! Or Jack Pumpkinhead. He’s a little like the Scarecrow, only he has a pumpkin for a head. Periodically the pumpkin rots and has to be replaced, for which emergency Jack has a handy pumpkin patch in his backyard.

You get the idea. If you have a child in the house who hasn’t read them, you might foist the books on her, or read them aloud, as I did for my older daughter when she was a little girl.

Meanwhile, check out Maguire.

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