Geoff Ryman:Was

I read this book under the mistaken impression that it was a fantasy book. It was listed as being eligible for the Aurora award, the Canadian version of the Hugos, so I expected it to be SF in some way. But it proved not to be so.

Instead, it's almost an anti-fantasy book. It pursues the myth of Oz, pounces on it, and breaks its neck.

One of the book's principal characters is Dorothy Gael, who goes to live with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas. Sound familiar? Except that Dorothy's life is a living hell--abused by Uncle Henry, shunned at school, her dog Toto killed shortly after her arrival... She has a substitute teacher named L. Frank Baum one day, who brings to light her horrible life, although nothing is done about it. Eventually she runs away and ends up in an asylum, where she dies shortly after seeing "The Wizard of Oz" on its first television broadcast.

The other main character is an actor named Jonathan, who was autistic as a child until he saw that same broadcast. The Oz characters were real to him, and brought him back to the real world, then abandoned him there. Now, years later, he has AIDS, and with the help of a psychiatrist(who happened to have met Dorothy Gael when working as an orderly at a certain asylum)he sets off on a quest for the real Dorothy, and thus, he hopes, the real Oz.

We also get a few chapters centering around Frances Gumm, a.k.a Judy Garland(in case you thought she had a happy life).

In an afterword to the book, Ryman states unequivocally what in the book is fantasy and what reality. (L. Frank Baum never met Dorothy Gael, who never existed in reality, for instance.) This is, to some extent, his theme(which he also discusses at some length). The book serves this theme much more than any plot.

Oz is a fantasy, and by definition not real. But it makes a difference in Jonathan's life nonetheless, and in his death. Despite the horrors suffered by Dorothy Gael, and the dysfunctional family of Judy Garland, images of the fantastic world of Oz came to be.

%A Ryman, Geoff
%T Was
%I Alfred A. Knopf
%C New York
%D Copyright 1992
%G ISBN 0-679-40429-5
%P 369 pp.
%O Hardcover

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