- ‘Was … ’ by Geoff Ryman
HarperCollins, 356 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 00 223931 0
As a boy I had no inclination to follow the yellow brick road, arm in arm with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion; warlocks and Munchkins were nothing to me, swaddled in the scented darkness of the dear old Palace Picture House, I had sterner fancies, buccaneer visions. I suppose I found The Wizard of Oz sentimental – milk pudding for lasses, no provender for a chap bent on being first up the ladder with Errol Flynn, cutlass in teeth: and yet now, in my days of penultimate dreaminess, I am moved by the recollection of Garland’s luminous eye, and that curiously sweet-metallic voice singing ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ – yearning upward an octave on the first two syllables, ‘somewhere’. I recognise the sad passion for Somewhere – the dreamer’s everlasting yonder, the romantic’s thitherland, that possible realm where we shall surely find our true home, if only the heart will hold out.
This confessional outburst is prompted by Geoff Ryman’s fine novel, the title of which is not Somewhere, but ‘Was ...’: a different place, perhaps, though just as far to seek, if not farther, and with as many perils and deceptions on the way. The narrative is governed by the fiction of Oz and the facts of Was; by the curious ways in which ‘histories’, being earthbound, are irradiated by the redeeming symbolism of ‘stories’, which are not. It tells us that sooner or later we must all make the journey to discover ourselves in our personal histories, and that when we set out we may need a myth to travel by.
Ryman begins with the history of Dorothy Gael, whose father has absconded, whose mother has died of diphtheria, and who has been sent as a child, with no companion other than her dog Toto, to live in Kansas, in deepest, coldest, hottest, bleakest, sweetest, bitterest, God-forsaken, God-bothering Kansas, with her shrewish Aunt Em and her kind uncle Henry Gulch. Her childhood is marred by loneliness, poverty, the harshness of the land and the insensitivity or downright cruelty of adults acting in her best interests. Everything is endurable until Uncle Henry, sweet old Uncle Henry, begins to molest her sexually. Then, hurt and oppressed, she oppresses and hurts others; is feared and despised and disbelieved; grows more isolated, embittered, enraged, until she quits the fold of sanity, and lives the rest of her life in an asylum.
The one person with any insight into Dorothy’s misery is a young supply teacher called Frank Baum. Baum is an out-of-work actor, a man of eccentric interests who studies Turkish and tells the children how in that language he would be called Uz, because Uz means ‘frank’. ‘It means a lot of other things as well,’ he tells them. ‘It means real and genuine. It means pure and unadulterated. It means kernel and cream, and it means self. It’s the root word for yearning and for homesickness and for all the things people want.’ This Baum will go on to write stories about Oz, intending them to console the heart and strengthen the spirit, but they will be regarded as mawkish and un-American, and will be boycotted by censorious librarians – until MGM studios take up his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and the dog Toto live transformed lives. In the film, the part of Dorothy is played by Frances Gumm, child of estranged parents, the spoilt temperamental brat of a spoiled theatrical family, a mixed-up whizz-kid if ever a whizz there was, an emotional exile who, triumphantly emerging as Judy Garland, brings Baum’s tale of Dorothy home into thousands of Palace Picture Houses during the Forties and again, decades later, onto thousands of television screens.
One of those screens is in Ontario, where the story of Oz captures the imagination of Jonathan, an autistic child who survives his autism and follows a career as an actor (in horror movies). When he is stricken by Aids, and at the very threshold of death, the feeling for Oz as the good place, the happy time, again consoles him, and he devotes his last days to a scholarly and passionate search for the real places and persons of Baum’s narrative. In this he is encouraged by his psychiatric counsellor, a good guy named Bill, who happens to have become a psychiatrist – instead of a footballer or a sergeant or an insurance man – because he once took a vacation job in a clinic where he met a disturbed, desperately alienated woman called Dorothy Gael. So with Jonathan’s dying search the story comes back to the Kansas earth, to the graves of Emma and Henry Gulch, and a shining place somewhere under the rainbow. The ending bows to realism without relinquishing fantasy; in Wordsworth’s phrase, it is true to the kindred points of heaven and home.
That is more or less the fable, shorn of the details that illuminate every episode. It demonstrates the linkage of lives far from each other yet deeply involved, each in each, and the involvement is a serial process of rescue or transformation. Frank Baum cannot rescue Dorothy Gael, but he transforms her life into myth; Frank’s book and its message are rescued from oblivion by the genius of Frances Gumm turned Judy Garland; the film about Oz transforms Jonathan’s life and redeems his last days; Bill Davison’s life takes meaning and direction from his first encounter with Dorothy Gael. The actors are important in their own lives, but their identities are, so to speak, provisional, and are deliberately obscured in a game of names. ‘Gael’ is the name Dorothy is uncertainly known by; not the name she began with. Dorothy thinks at first that Frank’s surname is ‘Balm’ – a felicitous error. ‘Garland’ transmutes the sullen reality of ‘Gumm’. As for Jonathan, we are only told that his surname signifies ‘dweller by low water’ – which, oddly enough, is quite close to what ‘Ryman’ means. We begin to suspect that names are meaningful in the parish records, but have little tenure out there among the fields and hills and watercourses, in the Somewhere of Was. Throughout the book, as we follow the lives of Dorothy and Frances and Jonathan, we have an accompanying sense of immersion in the history of the nameless – in stories of the bitter land, of Kansas, of the American ground and its generations of tenants. This evocation of an enveloping history is one of the best achievements of an absorbing and marvellously accomplished narrative.