I don’t know if I have enough words to describe just how much I enjoyed this book (ironic, no?).
It was wonderful; a rollercoaster of emotion, a triumph of visualisation, a fantastical tale with hints of reality peeking round the edges.
The story is very loosely based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz so to fully appreciate it you probably need to have some knowledge of that story. I’ve seen the film a few times so there’s very likely to have been some references I’ve missed out on but I still loved it (have you got that message yet?).
There are three strands to the book:
1. Dorothy, a young girl orphaned and sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the 1880s. Her story tracks her through her life growing up in rural Kansas and tells how she came to be the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s novel. Note: this is a fictional Dorothy but an entirely plausible tale.
2. Jonathan, an actor dying from AIDS and intent on discovering Dorothy’s story and seeing the world she lived in.
3. A minor strand tells the story of the young Judy Garland (Frances Gumm as she was then) and the filming of the Wizard of Oz.
Originally I didn’t expect to be interested in the Judy Garland story, I’ve never been one for biographies and I have very little interest in her anyway. However although it was my least favourite strand I did still enjoy it and the small part played by young Frances definitely held my attention.
But the real battle for my affection was between Dorothy and Jonathan. Despite opening the book, Jonathan doesn’t get much of a look in for the first half but when he is brought back he certainly makes up for it! In the latter part he and Bill (his therapist and a minor character but someone I fell for quite hard) go hunting through Kansas looking for traces of Dorothy which is exactly the sort of research I find fascinating. I love looking at old records and getting a sniff of the people behind the names. Real people who lived, loved and laughed just like we do. This is a big part of why I loved this book.
So I loved Jonathan but Dorothy, oh Dorothy! How I felt for you! I rooted for you from the first moment you were flung off that train in Manhattan (Kansas) and left to fend for yourself. I was with you on every step of your journey through life, at school, at Mr Sue’s and on your late night excursions, I was so willing someone to help you change your life. And yours was the story that drove me to skip ahead through several chapters to read the next part of your tale rather than be distracted by Jonathan or Judy. Oh Dorothy.
I truly didn’t expect to love this book. I picked it up because it was written by Geoff Ryman whose book 253 was a masterpiece and perfect for nosy commuters like me (see this post to find out why). So I expected it to be well written and maybe a bit different but I wasn’t thrilled by the ‘story behind the Wizard of Oz’ premise because I’m not a huge fan of the film. But I ended up loving not only the stories in Was but also the references to the other book/film, all the references to rainbows and witches and the need for brains, heart and courage.
I even loved Ryman’s afternote detailing his sources and what was and wasn’t based on fact because it gave the book the notes of realism I craved, it also stopped me getting carried away and believing everything he’d written.
When I turned the last page I sat and hugged the book and it was only very reluctantly that I was able to put it away and start something new this morning.