“A mythic meditation on the enduring power of fantasy and art and on the loss of innocence, both the innocence of childhood lost to the cruel realities of the grown-up world and the innocence of a nation lost to the cruelties of history. . . . A moving lament for lost childhoods and an eloquent tribute to the enduring power of art.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Dotty, old and maybe crazy, sees The Wizard of Oz on TV, and recognizes it as her own story.
Fabulous and haunting, Was explores the lives of characters intertwined with The Wizard of Oz: the “real” Dorothy Gale; Judy Garland’s unhappy fame; and Jonathan, a dying actor, and his therapist, whose work at an asylum unwittingly intersects with the Yellow Brick Road.
“In an era of bright, simple adaptations, Was is different—melancholy, beautiful, and yes, full of heartaches and nightmares. If we were to put those green glasses back on to block them out, we would leave ourselves knowing so much less about why such Technicolor stories matter to us, even long after childhood.”
“A startling, stimulating book filled with angels and scarecrows, gargoyles and garlands, vaudeville and violence. Pynchon goes Munchkin, you might say.”
—Washington Post Book World
“The Scarecrow of Oz dying of AIDS in Santa Monica? Uncle Henry a child abuser? Dorothy, grown old and crazy, wearing out her last days in a Kansas nursing home? It’s all here, in this magically revisionist fantasy on the themes from The Wizard of Oz.”
“Ryman’s darkly imaginative, almost surreal improvisation on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books combines a stunning portrayal of child abuse, Wizard of Oz film lore and a polyphonic meditation on the psychological burden of the past.”
“A mediation on art, lies and human pain. None of Ryman’s books is quite like any of the others—this is one of his most straightforward and best”
—Roz Kaveneny, Time Out
Geoff Ryman is the author of the novels The King’s Last Song, The Child Garden, Air (a Clarke and Tiptree Award winner), 253, Lust, The Unconquered Country (a World Fantasy Award winner), and a collection, Paradise Tales (a Sunburst Award winner). Canadian by birth, he is a frequent traveler, and now teaches at the University of Manchester.
Was, an excerpt:
PART ONE: THE WINTER KITCHEN
During the spring and summer I sometimes visited the small Norwegian Cemetery on a high hill overlooking a long view of the lower Republican Valley. In late evening a cool breeze always stirs the two pine trees which shade a few plots. Just south of the Cemetery in a little ravine is a small pond surrounded with a few acres of unbroken prairies sod. On the rise beyond the ravine a few large trees grow around a field. They are the only markers of the original site of my Grandfather’s homestead.
My Grandmother once told me that when she stood on the hill and looked southwest all she could see was prairie grass. An aunt told me of walking over the hills to a Post Office on the creek there. I can remember when a house stood just across the field to the west and now I can still see an old tree and a lonely lilac bush on the next hill where a few years ago a house and farm building stood. Of the ten houses I could see from this hill when I was a child, now only two exist – but instead of the waving prairie grass which Grandmother saw in the 1870s, there are rectangles and squares of growing crops and trees along the roads. A few miles distant the dark green of trees, with a water tower, tall elevator and an alfalfa mill rising above them define the area of a small town.
—Elinor Anderson Elliott,
The Metamorphosis of the Family Farm in the Republican Valley of Kansas: 1860-1960,
MA thesis, Kansas State University
The Municipal airport of Manhattan, Kansas, was low and brown and rectangular, and had a doorway that led direct from the runway. The last passenger from St. Louis staggered through it, his cheek bristly, his feet crossing in front of each other as he walked. He blinked at the rows of chairs and Pepsi machines and then made his way to the Hertz desk. He gave his name.
“Jonathan,” he said, in a faraway voice. Jonathan forgot to give his last name. He was enchanted by the man at the Hertz desk, who was long, lean, solemn, wearing wire glasses. He reminded Jonathan of the farmer in the painting American Gothic. Jonathan grinned.
He passed the man an airport napkin with a confirmation number written on it. American Gothic spoke of insurance and had forms ready to sign. Jonathan put check marks in the little boxes and passed over a credit card. He waited, trying not to think about how ill he was. He looked at a map on the wall.
The map showed Manhattan the town and, to the west of it, Fort Riley, the Army base. Fort Riley covered many miles. It had taken over whole towns.
Jonathan did not know there had once been a town in Kansas called Magic. There had even been a Church of Magic, until the congregation had to move when the Army base took over. The ghost towns were marked. Fort Riley DZ. DZ Milford. The letters D were ambiguously rounded.
Quite plainly on the map, there was something that Jonathan read as “OZ Magic.”
It had its own little box, hard by something called the Artillery and Mortar Inpact Area, quite close to a village called Keats.
“There you go,” said American Gothic. He held out car keys.
“What’s this mean?” Jonathan asked, pointing at the words.
“DZ?” the man said. “It means ‘Drop Zone.’”
There were little things on the map called silos. Jonathan thought the silos might be for storing sorghum.
“At the end of the world,” said the man at the Hertz desk, “it will rain fire from the sky.” He still held out the car keys. “Manhattan won’t know jack shit about it. We’ll just go up in a flash of light.”
Not a single thing he had said made any sense to Jonathan. Jonathan just stared at the map.
“Anyway,” said American Gothic, “you got the gray Chevrolet Celebrity outside.”
Jonathan thought of Bob Hope. He swayed where he stood. Sweat trickled into his mouth.
“You all right?” the man asked.
“I’m dying,” said Jonathan, smiling. “But aside from that I’m pretty good, I guess.” It was an innocent statement of fact.
Too innocent. Ooops, thought Jonathan. Now he won’t rent me a car.
But this was Kansas, not Los Angeles. The man went very still for a moment, then said quietly, “You need a hand with your luggage?”
“Don’t have any,” said Jonathan, smiling almost helplessly at the man, as if he regretted turning him down.
“You from around here? Your face looks kinda familiar.”
“I’m an actor,” Jonathan replied. “You may have seen me. I played a priest in ‘Dynasty.’”
“Well, I’ll be,” said American Gothic. “What are you doing here, then?”
It was a long story. “Well,” said Jonathan, already imitating the other man’s manner. “I suppose you could say I’m here to find somebody.”
“Oh. Some kind of detective work.” There was a glint of curiosity, and a glint of hostility.
“Something like detective work,” agreed Jonathan, and smiled. “It’s called history.” He took the keys and walked.
After the Kansas were placed on the greatly reduced reservation near Council Grove, a substantial decline occurred. For example, in 1855—the year their agent described them as “a poor, degraded, superstitious, thievish, indigent” type of people—the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported their number at 1,375. By 1859 it was down to 1,035 and in 1868 to 825. Finally, while this “improvident class of people” made plans for permanent removal to Indian Territory, an official Indian Bureau count placed their number at “about 600.” Clearly the long-range trend appeared to be one of eventual obliteration.
—William E. Unrau,
The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873
The brakeman danced along the roofs of the train cars, turning brake-wheels. The cars squealed and hissed and bumped their way to a slowly settling halt. he train chuffed once as if in relief.There was a dog barking. The noise came from within the train, as regular as the beating of its steam-driven heart. The dog was hoarse.
The door of a car was flung open, pushed by a boot, and it crashed against the side of the train. A woman all in black with a hat at an awkward angle was dragging a large trunk case. A little girl all in white stood next to her. The white dress sparkled in sunlight, as if it had been sprinkled with mirrors. The dog still barked.
“Where’s my doggy? We’re going to leave my doggy!” said the child.
“Your doggy will be along presently. Now you just help yourself down those steps.” The woman had a thin, intelligent face. Her patience was worn. She took the child’s hand and leaned out of the car. The child dangled, twisting in her grasp. A huge sack was thrown out of the next car and onto the platform like a dead body.
“Aaah!” cried the child, grizzling.
“Little girl, please. Use your feet.”
“I can’t!” wailed the child.
The woman looked around the platform. “Johnson!” she called. “Johnson Langrishe, is that you? Could you come over here please and help this little girl down from the train?”
A plump and very pimply youth – his cheeks were almost solid purple – loped toward the train, hair hanging in his eyes under a Union Pacific cap. The woman passed the child down to him. Johnson took her with a grunt and dropped her just a little too soon onto the platform.
The train whistled. The dog kept barking.
“Dog’s been making music since Topeka. It’s a wonder he’s got any voice left. Trunk next.” The woman pushed the trunk out the door. Johnson was not strong enough to hold it, and it slipped from his grasp to the ground.
“My doggy,” said the little girl.
“Dot rat your doggy,” muttered the woman. “Johnson. Do you know Emma Gulch? Emma Branscomb as was?”
“Well that’s just dandy,” said the woman with an air of finality.
“There’s no one here? There’s no one here?” The little girl began to panic.
“No, little girl, I’m afraid not. I’m going o Junction, otherwise I’d stop off with you. Why? Why let a little girl come all this way and not meet her, I just do not know!” The woman turned and shouted at the next car.
“Hank,” she cried. “Hank, for goodness’ sake! Fetch the little girl her dog, can’t you?”
“He bit me!” shouted the porter.
The woman finally chickled. “Oh, Lord!” She turned and disappeared into the next car.
The train sneezed twice and a white cloud rolled up donut-shaped from the funnel. Great metal arms began to stroke the wheels almost lovingly. And the wheels began to turn. A creak and a slam and a rolling noise and the train began to sidle away. It whistled again, and the shriek of the whistle smothered the cry the little girl made for her dog.
Then out of the mailcar door, the woman appeared, holding out a furious gray bundle. It wrenched itself from her grasp and rolled out onto the platform. It somersaulted into the child and then spun and righted itself, yelping in outrage. It roared hatred at the train and the people on it. The dog consigned the train to Hell. Johnson, the boy, backed away from him.
Sunset orange blazed on the side of the car. The woman still hung out of the doorway.
“Emma Gulch is her aunt! Lives east out in Zeandale!” she shouted. “Try to get word to her. God bless, child!” the woman waved with one hand and held on to her hat with the other. The air above the train shivered with heat. There was a wuffling sound of fire, and a clapping and clanking, and the brakeman did his dance. All of it moved like a show, farther down the track, fading like the light. The light was low and golden.
This was the time of the afternoon the little girl most hated. This was the time she felt most alone.
“What’s your name?” Johnson asked her.
“Dorothy,” said the little girl. She held up her white dress to make it sparkle.
“What’s that stuff on your dress?”
“It’s a theater dress,” said the little girl. Her eyes stared and her mouth was puffy. “The theater people in Kansas City gave it to me.” She had stayed with them last night, and she liked them. “Are you going to stay with me?” she asked Johnson.
“For a little while, maybe.”
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Well I ate up all my pie, or I surely would have let you have some.”
The place was silent. The station had a porch and a platform and a wooden waiting room. The tracks ran beside a river. Dorothy could see no town. She recognized nothing. She pushed the hair out of her eyes. Nothing was right.
“Where is everybody?” she asked. She was scared, as if there were ghosts in the low orange light.
“Oh, next train won’t be here till past six. Come on, I’ll show you where you can set.”
He walked on ahead of her. He didn’t hold her hand. Mama would have held her hand, or Papa. She followed him.
Her ticket was pinned to her dress, along with a set of instructions. “Will this ticket get me back to St. Lou?” she asked. If there was nobody coming to meet her?
“I don’t know,” said Johnson, and held open the door of the waiting room. It had bare floors of fine walnut, wainscoting, a stove, benches. There were golden squares of light on the floor.
“You must be tired. You just rest here a bit, and I’ll see if I can’t find somebody to go fetch your aunty.”
Don’t go! Dorothy thought. She was afraid and couldn’t speak. Stay!
“You’ll be okay. We’ll get you sorted out.” He smiled and closed the door. Dorothy was alone.
This was the time when Mama would lay the table. Mama would sing to herself, lightly, quietly. Sometimes Dorothy would help her, putting out the knives and forks. Sometimes Dorothy would have a bath, with basins of warm water poured over both her and her little brother, Bobo. Papa would come home and shout, “How’re my little angels?” Dorothy would come running and giggling towards him. Don’t tickle me, she would demand, so he would. And they would all eat together, sunlight swirling in the dust as the shadows lengthened.
No dinner now.
And later people would come around, and they’d all talk and sometimes ask Dorothy to stand up on a chair and sing. The chairs would scrape on the floor as they were pulled back in a hurry, for cards or for a dance. Papa would play the fiddle. They would let Dorothy sit up and drink a little wine. People would hold Bobo up by his arms so that he could dance too, grinning.
So what happened to little girls with nobody to take care of them? How did they eat? Would it all be like that trip on the train? The train trip had seemed to go on forever, but this was even worse.
She was afraid now, deep down scared, and she knew she would stay horribly, crawlingly scared until dark, into the dark when it would get even worse, until she tossed and turned herself asleep.
Toto sighed and shivered, waiting out the terror with her.
The dust moved in the sunlight and the sunlight moved across the wall, and no one came, and no one came. Time and loneliness and fear crept forward at the same slow pace.
Then the front door swung open with a sound of sleighbells on a leather strap, like Christmas. Dorothy looked up. A woman in black stood in the doorway, carrying a basket.
“Are you the little girl who’s waiting for her aunty?” the woman asked. Dorothy nodded. The woman smiled and came toward her. There was something terribly wrong.
The woman’s arms were too long. The bottom of her rib cage seemed to stick out in the wrong place, and she walked by throwing her hips from side to side and letting her tiny legs follow. As she moved, everything was wrenched and jolted. Dorothy backed away from her, along the bench.
“I brought some chicken with me,” said the woman, smiling, eyes bright.Her face was young and pretty. “My name’s Etta, what’s yours?” Toto sat up from the floor, ears forward, but he did not growl.
Dorothy told her in such a low voice that Etta had to ask her again. “And the dog’s name?”
“Same,” said Dorothy. Etta sat down on the bench some distance away, and began to unfold a red-checked cloth from the basket. Some of the fear seemed to go. “He’s got the same last name as mine.”
Etta plucked out apples and cold dumplings and some chicken and passed them on a plate.:
“The same name. How’s that?”
“My mama got the two of us on the same day. So I’m called Dorothy and he’s called Toto. That’s short for Dorothy.” Dorothy had the drumstick.
“Would Toto like some chicken?” Etta asked.
Dorothy nodded yes, with her mouth full. She stared at the woman’s pretty face as she held out a strand of chicken for Toto. Dorothy was confused by the woman’s height and manner. Dorothy was not entirely sure if she was a child or an adult.
“Are you middle-aged,” Dorothy asked. She did not understand the term. She thought it meant people who were between childhood and adulthood.
“Me?” Etta chuckled. “Why no, I’m twenty years old!”
“Why aren’t you bigger?”
“I’m deformed,” Etta answered.
Dorothy mulled the word over. “So am I,” she decided.
“Oh no, you’re not, you’re tall and straight and real pretty.”
“So are you,” Dorothy decided. The long arms and the twisted trunk had resolved themselves into something neutral.
Etta went pink. “Don’t talk nonsense,” she said.
“You’re real pretty. Are you married?”
Etta smiled a secret kind of smile. “I might be someday.”
“Everybody should be married,” said Dorothy. It appealed to her sense of order.
“Why’s that?” Etta asked.
Dorothy shrugged. She didn’t know. She just had a picture of people in houses. “Where do you live if you’re not married?”
“With my Uncle William.”
“Could you marry him?”
Etta chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to. There is someone I could marry, though, if you promise not to tell anyone.”
Dorothy nodded yes.
“Mr. Reynolds,” whispered Etta, and her face went pink again, and she grinned and grinned.
Dorothy grinned as well, and good spirits suddenly overcame her. “Mr. Reynolds,” Dorothy said, and kicked both feet.
“People tell me I shouldn’t marry him. But do you know, I think I might just do it anyway.”
Dorothy was pleased and looked at her white shoes and white stockings. “Now,” said Etta. “What we’re going to do is wait here till your aunty comes. And if she can’t come here today, then we’ll go and spend the night at my house and then go to your aunty’s in the morning. Would you like that?”
Dorothy nodded yes. “Is it nice here?” she asked.
“Nice enough,” said Etta. She told Dorothy about the trees of Manhattan. When the town was planned, every street had a row of trees planted down each side. The avenues had two rows of trees planted on each side, in case the road was ever widened. So, Manhattan was called the City of Trees. Dorothy liked that. It was as if it were a place where everyone lived in trees instead of houses. Nimbly, Etta packed up the remains of their dinner.
Then they went to the window. Dorothy saw Manhattan.
There was a white two-story house on the corner of the road, with a porch and a door that had been left open. Dorothy could hear a child calling inside. There was a smell of baking. It looked like home.
And there were the trees, as tall as the upper floor. Beyond the trees, there was a honey-colored building. The Blood Hotel, Etta called it. There were hills: Blue Mont with smoke coming out of its top like a chimney; College Hill, where Etta lived.
“Are there any Indians?” Dorothy asked.
Not anymore, Etta told her. But near Manhattan, there had been an indian ciry.
“It was called Blue Earth,” said Etta. “They had over a hundred houses. Each house was sixty feet long. They grew pumpkins and swuash and otatoes and fished in the river, and once a year they left to hunt buffalo. They were the Kansa Indians, which is why one river is called the Kansas, and the other is called Big Blue. Because they met right here where the Kansas lived.”
Dorothy saw it, a river as blue as the sea in her picture books at home. The Kansas River was called yellow, and Dorothy saw the two currents, yellow and blue mixing like colors in her paint box.
“Is it green there?” she asked. She meant where the blue and yellow mixed.
“It’s green everywhere here,” Etta answered. They went back to sit on the bench. Etta told Dorothy about Indian names, Wichita and Topeka. Topeka meant “A Good Place to Find Potatoes.” That made Dorothy laugh.
“But any place is what you make it,” said Etta. “You’ve got to make it home. You’ve got to do that for yourself. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Dorothy began to play with the bows on Etta’s dress. Etta put her arms around her and rested her head against Dorothy’s. They were nearly the same height.
“It’s difficult, because everybody wants to be loved. And you think you can’t have a home unless you are loved by somebody, anybody. But it’s not true. Sometimes you can learn to live without being loved. It’s terrible hard, but you can do it.”
Then she kissed Dorothy on the forehead.
“The trick is,” said Etta, pulling Dorothy’s long black hair from her face, “to remember what it’s like to be loved.”
Dorothy fell asleep. She dreamed of knitting and the black piano and her paint box and picture books and all the things that had been left behind.