This dense and disturbing novel offers a look into the life of one Dorothy Gael of Kansas, Ryman’s imaginary inspiration for the well-loved Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, and into a bevy of other characters whose lives are touched (directly or indirectly) by her. His Dorothy doesn’t have a happy story, and for most of the novel misery carries the day. It is softened by the depths of character and a few moving exemplars of compassion. Wrapped within the novel is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the book and the movie-from its disreputable and unsavory youth to its arrival as a full-blown American classic.
“Was” is not going to be universally appreciated. It is difficult. More than once I found myself reminded of James Joyce; there’s a lot going on, and the language isn’t always easy to penetrate. The book has something to say about human nature, the way the world and other people break us. Society’s response to difference and pain. Homosexuality, child abuse, even the enfeeblement of the aged-the miseries of the human condition are shunned for their power to infect.
I can’t say that I always enjoyed this book, though I’m glad I read it. I found it very well written. The characters were in my opinion completely believable. Ryman exhibits a compassion for everyone he writes here, from the least sympathetic to the most. He seems to really understand what drives human beings to the ways they behave, and, unlike the society he represents, he’s willing to look at them unflinchingly. I did find the narrative jumps sometimes a little tough to follow; the book required more work than it always rewarded in that regard. But that’s in keeping with the rest of this novel, which doesn’t spoon-feed you answers. What’s the purpose of all this misery? Perhaps it is so that we, like one of the characters, can say, “I’m going to have to do something about all of this.”
In this book, in this world, there are Dorothies aplenty, shattered souls who need our help. This resonant novel is a powerful reminder of that fact, an incentive to let them know they are loved. Through most of this novel I would have called this a 4-star, maybe even a high 3–but I found the final section so gripping and the conclusion so powerful that I wouldn’t be doing it justice to give it less than a 5. It may not make its way to your list of classics, but it deserves its placement on mine.