In Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire has written a novel that deals with the life of Elphaba, an emerald-green skinned young woman who was born into the family of a preacher and his wife in Munchkinland. Elphaba's family are not Munchkinlanders, however, and Elphaba grows up knowing more than she ever wanted to know about persecution and alienation. As a result, she becomes somewhat introverted, rebellious and yes, a little wicked.
When we all root for Dorothy as she triumphs over the Wicked Witch of the West in Frank Baum's Oz tales, we seem to forget that we are only hearing Dorothy's side of the story. There is more to Elphaba than wickedness and Maguire proves it as he chronicles Elphaba's odyssey through the land of Oz.
What makes Wicked such a special book is the fact that Maguire has written a story that challenges our preconceived notions of what, exactly, is good and what, exactly, is evil, with the character of Elphaba at the heart of the matter. Although Dorothy does make an appearance near the end of the book, it really isn't necessary to know anything about her or the Baum stories to understand and appreciate Wicked.
In Wicked, we follow the life of Elphaba as we learn what shaped her personality, what it really means to be a witch and how things are not always as we think them to be or even as we want them to be. The characters in Wicked are fully-fleshed out and believable. Besides Elphaba, there is her university roommate, Glinda; Boq, the lovelorn Munchkin; Fiyero, a tribal prince from the primitive West of Oz; and Nessarose, Elphaba's beautiful and witchy sister.
The fantasy elements in Wicked are actually quite light; this is no book for children and it even runs the risk of becoming overburdened by the weighty issues it seeks to tackle. Maguire could have let this book slip into nothing more than a sappy view of the technologies and magic that pervade the land of Oz. Instead, he wisely chose to focus on the people, instead and he has created characters that are vibrant, strong and full of life.
Maguire's Oz is no Utopia and Elphaba is more than just a green-skinned witch. She is a woman who has become wise through the mechanations of guilt and sorrow and one who is, surprisingly, actually happy to meet the young girl from Kansas who eventually shows up at her door.
Wicked is more than satire; it is an imaginative, fast-paced, fantastically real and supremely entertaining novel of vision and revision. Once you read it, Oz will never be the same again.