It's been awhile since a book amazed me, but Was definitely did. Think of it as being similar to Wicked, only told like The Hours. I was unable to make it through Wicked, but Was is similar in that it approaches the story of the the land of Oz in a completely new and different way.
First off, a review from Kirkus Reviews:
The Scarecrow of Oz dying of AIDS in Santa Monica? Uncle Henry a child abuser? Dorothy, grown old and crazy, wearing out her last days in a Kansas nursing home? It's all here, in this magically revisionist fantasy on the themes from The Wizard of Oz. For Dorothy Gael (not a misprint), life with Uncle Henry and Aunty Em is no bed of roses: Bible-thumping Emma Gulch is as austere (though not as nasty) as Margaret Hamilton, and her foul- smelling husband's sexual assaults send his unhappy niece over the line into helpless rage at her own wickedness and sullen bullying of the other pupils in nearby Manhattan, Kansas. Despite a brush with salvation (represented by substitute teacher L. Frank Baum), she spirals down to madness courtesy of a climactic twister, only to emerge 70 years later as Dynamite Dottie, terror of her nursing home, where youthful orderly Bill Davison, pierced by her zest for making snow angels and her visions of a happiness she never lived, throws over his joyless fianc‚e and becomes a psychological therapist. Meanwhile, in intervening episodes in 1927 and 1939, Frances Gumm loses her family and her sense of self as she's transformed into The Kid, Judy Garland; and between 1956 and 1989, a little boy named Jonathan, whose imaginary childhood friends were the Oz people, grows up to have his chance to play the Scarecrow dashed by the AIDS that will draw him to Kansas--with counselor Davison in pursuit--in the hope of finding Dorothy's 1880's home and making it, however briefly, his own. This tale of homes lost and sought, potentially so sentimental, gets a powerful charge from Ryman's patient use of homely detail in establishing Dorothy's and Jonathan's childhood perspectives, and from the shocking effects of transforming cultural icons, especially in detailing Dorothy's sexual abuse. Science-fiction author Ryman (The Child Garden, 1990) takes a giant step forward with this mixture of history, fantasy, and cultural myth--all yoked together by the question of whether you can ever really go home.
I really loved this book. I thought the interweaving plotlines were well done, and the story was compelling. It was also extremely sad, which gave the book depth that I (personally) think is lacking in the original Oz story. I actually haven't seen The Wizard of Oz in years, nor have I read any of the Oz books. And I really haven't had the desire to, although now I am more inclined to explore this world more fully. (Side note: I do happen to love the movie Return to Oz.)
Overall, this book is definitely a keeper. My only complaint is that the author didn't focus enough on the life of Judy Garland. I wanted to learn more about her, and there were only a few chapters dedicated to her. Some of those chapters weren't even about her directly but instead focused on a family member. That aspect definitely could have been executed better.
Here is my favorite passage from the book: "The world was haunted. It needed to be haunted. The Land of Was was cradled in the arms of Now like a child. Was made Now tender. Death made life precious."
It probably makes more sense in context, but to me, it sounds great out of context as well.
Good-night. I'm off to have emerald-colored dreams.