cover image Was


Geoff Ryman. Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40429-3

In a darkly imaginative, almost surreal improvisation on L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Dorothy Gael, an orphan churning with rage and self-hatred, is repeatedly sexually abused by her Uncle Henry on their Kansas farm. Sadistic, sanctimonious Aunty Em, who dislikes Dorothy's dog Toto, looks the other way. Rewriting the Oz story as a somber gothic fantasy rich in period detail, Ryman ( The Child Garden ) casts Baum as a substitute teacher who rescues Dorothy from life as a prostitute on the 1880s Kansas frontier. But Dorothy ends up in a mental institution where, as Old Doty, she will be discovered in 1956 by Bill Davison, a caring attendant. In a parallel story set in the 1980s, Jonathan, a gay, Canadian-born horror-film actor dying of AIDS, enters therapy with Bill, now a Los Angeles psychiatrist, who instructs him to visualize that he's in Oz to reenact a childhood obsession. Desperately seeking home, various characters--both real (Judy Garland) and fictional--follow the yellow brick roads of their heart's desires and converge in Kansas. Brilliantly inventive, Was (``a place that never goes away'') combines a stunning portrayal of child abuse, Wizard of Oz film lore and a polyphonic meditation on the psychological burden of the past. (May)