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Book Review: Was by Geoff Ryman

This was a surprising, moving and utterly original book that uses story of and behind The Wizard of Oz, the author, the characters and those whose lives were changed by the 1939 movie, namely one Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) to construct an intertwined tale of hardship, hope, human frailty and strength. It segues between the bleak life of Dorothy Gale who lives with her Aunt and Uncle in dire poverty in a shack in drought afflicted Kansas in the 1800s to modern day New York and places and times between. I won’t spoil things by revealing much plot here expect to say it’s completely heart-wrenching at times, and because you’re so invested in the characters, difficult to read, even while you appreciate the brilliance of the story.

The novel also follows the life of a young actor dying of AIDS who wants, as his swan-song, to play the Scarecrow in a stage production of the Wizard of Oz. It also introduces us to the life of a substitute teacher who dreams of a different existence as well as the childhood of young and unprepossessing Frances Gumm who follows her father around as he tries to breathe more life into a dying career. Aimless and wonderful, hopeful and yet damned, these people long for what they cannot have and try to create a better life for themselves – mostly with unforeseen results.
The world and times of the characters are so exquisitely  drawn and so heart-achingly real – that reading what happens is sometimes more than you can stand. But it’s also worth it. For anyone who is a fan of the original Baum story and then all the different manifestations that the story of little Dorothy Gale’s journey to Kansas and who she encounters there has inspired (especially the wonderful Wicked, by Gregory Maguire), then this is a book you should read.
Imaginative, beautifully written and always engaging, it’s a yellow brick road journey for grown-ups who always wonder, in the way those with a history do, what happens when you take off the emerald spectacles and view the city with your own eyes; those who wonder what might have been – what Was.

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