Off the Yellow Brick Road
I'm not a sheep.
Let me tell you a secret. There are few things I abhor more than being a sheep. I absolutely cannot stand being categorized, tagged, or labeled. This is why I never want to go anywhere near the Twilight series (my apologies to Stephenie Meyer) or even own an iPhone. I never want to be called a “fangirl” or claim to have all the merchandise related to a celebrity or fictional character. I would be a sheep, simply tagging along with the crowd. At least, that was how I used to see things. That was the way it was before a certain novel entered my life and changed it irreversibly.
On my fourteenth birthday, my older brother handed me a book. So, of course, the first thing I did was judge it by its cover. The border was an intriguing design of twisted trees. In the center was an image of what appeared to be a witch, green-skinned and black-robed, encircled by the title - WICKED: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It looked promising until I realized that - oh, God help me - it had been turned into a Broadway musical that everyone loved. Not only that, but it was also a sort of “prequel” to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, a book I had never had the opportunity to read, nor had any desire to. When I was in elementary school, I watched the movie version and wondered why anyone would want to sit through so many songs about rainbows and roads. The songs were obviously not in the original story, but they did not exactly motivate me to read the book. Perhaps I could let the book collect dust on my bookshelf until I was intolerably bored. In retrospect, that was probably the worst way to decide anything. Keeping an open mind was not one of my strengths in the slightest.
A month later, I relented. The cover was appealing, and I had never heard the author’s name before. I would give it a try, though I did not have much faith in my brother’s choice of books. A few years back, he bought me one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, and I was so lost in the chaotic sea of people and places that five chapters in, I gave up and skimmed through the rest of the story. The experience was one that I was quite averse to repeating. I sighed, braced myself, and warily flipped Wicked open to the first page.
I gaped in shock at the last line. That was how Gregory Maguire concluded the book? I should have expected it, as Dorothy melted the witch at the end of the original story, but, immersed in the tale, I had no intimation of what would happen next. The swirling blend of pure love, burning hatred, acceptance, denial, happiness, and loneliness that accompanied each turn of the page gave the book a soul. It had a life. It had power. How could I ever have forsaken this masterpiece to be wedged between that confusing Tolkien book and the cold side of the bookshelf? After reluctantly setting the book down on the table, I ran a quick analysis in my head. How anyone could incorporate such enlightening ideas into an otherwise simple story was beyond me. I began wondering, throughout the next few days, about the motives of every “antagonist” in every story that I could easily recall. Why did the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood want to eat the grandmother? Was it because he needed the strength to hunt for his family in the woods? Did he really deserve to die for trying to survive?
In addition to changing my perspective with fairy tales, Wicked firmly planted in my head the realization that I had been wrong to dismiss anything just because it was popular. Did it not occur to me that people’s positive opinions about things meant that maybe they were worth experiencing? A movie might be sold out at the box office because it was actually funny or actually inspirational. A book might no longer be in stock because the writing was actually poetic or actually sophisticated. It was time for me to amend my ways and let my friends recommend literature and songs to me. If I like something, why should its obscurity make it any better? Why should its fame make it any less meaningful to me?
A sheep is an animal that will follow the herd mindlessly. A sheep will allow itself to be herded by the shepherd and his dog. I discovered, because of a single book, that I do not have to be one of the sheep simply because I share a common interest with millions of others. I am my own person, and I always will be. Not allowing oneself to be swept along by the crowd is an attainment to be proud of, much more so than not allowing oneself to step in and mingle. There is no reason to back away from the good things in this world for the sole purpose of trying to stay an individual. I learned this invaluable lesson from Wicked, a book extolled, for good reason, by so many strangers. Thank you, Gregory Maguire, for showing me that even in the Land of Oz, I do not have to follow the Yellow Brick Road.