Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.
As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.
Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.
Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.
Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”
Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.
In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”
As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.
Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.
Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.