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[whitespace] 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister'
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
384 pages

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
416 pages

By Gregory Maguire (illustrated by Douglas Smith)
HarperCollins; $15 each paper

Oz Fellows

Fairy tales do--unfortunately--come true, in these twisted volumes

By Richard von Busack

ESCAPE FROM what? We're Northern Californians, savoring the last golden drops of Indian Summer. Is there a single fanatic, so devoted to his flag or his sky-God, that one good November sunset here wouldn't make him fall down and worship this Earth like it ought to be worshipped?

Admittedly, readers might want to escape from looming terror. But what about the previous 50 years of nuclear threat? What were they, chopped liver? I hate to be one of those whiners who complain about having their scene muscled in on by Johnnie-come-latelies. Still, just because some citizens previously lacked the imagination to picture themselves poxed, plagued or flash-fried, doesn't mean that terror wasn't keeping some of us awake at 3am, long before this September.

For years, then, I've been soaking up some form of escapist lit, most lately the second volume of the translation of The Arabian Nights by Husain Haddawy (Norton); this installment includes the tales of 'Ala al-Din and the seven voyages of Sindbad.

The Sindbad in Haddawy's translation is a figure as plain and realistic as Robinson Crusoe. He bungles into adventures because he doesn't know enough to stay put. He's prone to despair, praying for death during his ordeals by monsters, cannibals, savages and the fabulous rukh, whose egg is as large as an island. Ultimately, Sindbad prospers and makes others prosper. Had the outcome had been any other way, one could take wintry comfort from the narrator's proverb: "The grave is safer than a palace."

The Land of Oz might seem safer than either grave or palace. In the imagination of novelist Gregory Maguire, however, it loses its never-never land remoteness, becoming a place as real as New Zealand or Borneo. Most know the story of Oz without having read L. Frank Baum's book of 1900 and its many sequels. Last year's The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Centennial Edition, published by Norton, repackaged Baum's original tale.

It's a grand-looking book even in paperback. W.W. Denslow's quaint yet modish illustrations, influenced by William Morris and the English arts-and-crafts movement, are handsomely reprinted. Thorough, if slightly crusty, annotations by Michael Patrick Hearn illuminate the work. The resourceful Dorothy--not a princess, but a sturdy farm girl--and the matter-of-fact magic of Oz both wait to be revisited.

During many viewings of the MGM film of The Wizard of Oz, I developed an affection for its villain and a dislike for its title character. The wizard may be a jovial huckster, but as The Man Behind the Curtain he embodies all ad-campaigners, all market surveyors, all of television's political propagandists: worse foulers of the airwaves than flocks of winged monkeys.

PERHAPS MARGARET Hamilton's witch wasn't as cruelly mistreated as Frankenstein's suffering monster, the other green anti-hero of the 1930s. But the witch has her partisans. And Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (HarperCollins) tells her own story.

We know how the witch ends, with the arrival of the child-savior Dorothy. "My soul come scavenging for me, I can feel it," Maguire's witch exclaims, seeing Dorothy. "I won't have it, I won't have it. I won't have a soul; with a soul there is everlastingness, and life has tortured me enough."

But Maguire starts his own epic with the foretold birth of the witch. She's named Elphaba. Born a rejected provincial girl, she has the birth defect of claws and sharp teeth and green skin. In her 20s, she becomes a student radical who travels to the capital as an underground revolutionary.

There is still a yellow brick road: "though winter storms and the crowbars of agitators had torn up the road, still it led, relentlessly to the Emerald City." Maguire's apparent model for the Emerald City is Vienna in 1900. It's decadent, crowded, bursting with every nationality and every tongue, including the tongues of talking animals. It's a political tinderbox.

The wizard, like the Emperor Franz-Josef, has been on the throne so long that no one can remember a ruler before him. The wizard's laws and persecutions of the talking-animal minority of Oz are Maguire's subtle metaphor for the dark fascination anti-Semitism had on the German-speaking nations. Elphaba first opposes, then flees, the wizard's empire, his soldiers, his secret police. The witch-to-be is a plaintive, stubborn heroine. She becomes the classic fanatic who redoubles her efforts after misplacing her goals

Maguire's other adult fairy tale rewrite, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Harper Collins), isn't as pungent as Wicked. Still it has just as much of a sense of faraway place: a real one, this time, Holland in the 1600s. Maguire retells Cinderella against the ferment of the Dutch at their cultural peak, with artists from Vermeer to Rembrandt hovering in the sidelines. The heroine is an artist's model: Clara, a girl so beautiful that she's assumed to be a changeling--a creature placed in the cradle by demons to take the place of a normal baby.

Maguire's the natural successor of Angela Carter, the British author who updated many of the tales in Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Like Carter, Maguire darkens his tales with colors from a 20th-century palette. He tinges them with shades of Freud and Hitler, lightens them with sex and feminism. The first fairy tales were warning of dangers hiding in the places lantern light wouldn't reach; where evil was always ugly and good was always beautiful. Only children should dwell in that black or white world. Maguire dedicates Wicked "to all those who taught me to love and fear goodness." A reminder of the double-edge of goodness is a souvenir to bring back from a trip to Maguire's Oz to our own dangerous times.

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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