REVIEW: The Fairytale Life of Dorothy Gale by Virginia Kantra
Dear Virginia Kantra,
I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Wizard of Oz – the one with Judy Garland in – from start to finish, just bits of it. I’ve never read the book. But I know the story of course. The main draw for me was you. I adored your Carolina series (especially Carolina Dreaming) a few years back (looking it up on Goodreads, that series finished in 2016). I haven’t (yet) read your retellings of Little Women but I intend to now. But for this book, your name attached to it was all I needed to pretty please request it.
Dorothy Gale is a 26-year-old graduate student, formerly at Kansas University. She had been in a two-year secret relationship with Grayson Kettering, a professor at KU. He didn’t directly teach her but he was in the same department (English) and it was nonetheless improper of him. Gray, the jerk, wrote a book “Destiny Gayle” in which a hapless professor was ensnared into an inappropriate relationship with a student and how his life unravels all because of her. Dorothy was very obviously the inspiration for “Destiny” and it was by no means a flattering comparison. Dee was humiliated, a laughing-stock – in school, with readers all over, in the media. She’d had no idea she was the subject of his book. Once the book was released, he ghosted her. Now the best-selling book is being made into a movie.
For the two years of their relationship, Dee put her own thesis on hold. Being gaslit by Gray did not help. Now, she has transferred to Trinity College, Dublin for a year to finish her dissertation and finally break free of Gray.
Dee never knew her father. Her mother was an artist who was away often. Dee and her younger sister, Toni, frequently stayed with friends of their mother, often on couches, or, they stayed with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on their farm in Kansas. After their mother died when Dee was 12 and Toni was 4, they went to live permanently on the farm. Dee has always felt responsible for Toni. In many ways, she raised her. Their aunt and uncle are hard-working, practical people and not given to shows of affection. Dee always had the impression that Em and Henry took them in out of obligation and regarded them as burdens. Dee has always felt in the way, like she doesn’t belong anywhere, with anyone. Gray’s treatment of her only reinforced that view.
In Dublin, Dee meets Sam Clery, a shopkeeper and would-be poet who missed his opportunity to go to Trinity to study English when his father died and Sam had to take over the shop to help his mother and four siblings. Sam is our Scarecrow. She also meets Tim Woodman, a businessman and fellow student at Trinity (albeit in the business school) who was wounded in Afghanistan during his military service and who believes himself to have no heart – aka the Tin Man. And also, Reeti, a young British-Indian Sikh woman who is studying business at the college but longs to teach young Indian women in order to improve their lives and encourage independence in them. Only, she’s terribly afraid of disappointing her parents. She is our Cowardly Lion.
Dee forms a deep friendship with all three and a romantic connection with one of the men. As to which one – well, I’ll leave that for the readers to discover themselves. I will say that I was very happy with her choice. He was my personal pick too (although I certainly did not dislike the other one).
Reeti, a couple of years younger than Dee, quickly becomes Dee’s best friend and is wonderful at telling Dee things she needs to hear, with kindness and love. And Dee, for the first time, begins to find friends and her place.
“Dee, you don’t have to be useful to be liked. Not here, anyway.”
Dee has some difficulty with being connected to an advisor for her dissertation. Dr. Eastwick, the woman she reached out to in the first place, was unfortunately squished by a mobile house which tipped over and fell on her car when the house was being transported on the highway. Glenda Norton, the head of the program tries, somewhat reluctantly, to find someone to step in. Maeve Ward, who other students, past and present, refer to as “the witch” is an option but she’s terrifying and demanding. Later in the year, she is mentored by a children’s book writer, Oscar Diggs (our Oz), who inspires her to be braver with her writing.
Over the course of her year in Dublin, Sam finds wisdom, Tim finds his heart and Reeti finds her courage. And Dee rewrites her unfinished historical literary novel set in the dustbowl of Kansas, reimagining it as a story for children.
Maybe that was my problem. I’d been writing Rose’s story, but I’d forgotten to give her a companion on her journey. Someone she needed to protect, to force her to be braver, kinder, wiser. It wasn’t enough to defeat the dragon. Fairy tales—the ones I loved—weren’t only about survival. They were about hope and love and joy.
“She has a pet,” I decided. “A chicken.” I knew chickens. And a chicken would be funny.
“I don’t want to be a chicken,” Toni protested sleepily.
She had always wanted a puppy. Not a working dog, like Uncle Henry’s or one of the feral strays along the highway. So, yes, okay, a dog. I could see it in my mind, small and dark and bright-eyed.
“A dog named Toto…”
There was some talk in the book about imitation being a good starting point. But when Rose’s name changed to Dorothy I became concerned. “Who is going to tell her?” I thought. It took me an unfeasibly long time to work out that in the universe of The Fairytale Life of Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum did not exist. (Note to readers: now you know. You’re welcome.) Once I worked that out, I felt so much better about Dee’s book.
Dee also confronts demons, old and new, including Gray, who like a bad penny, turns up again. She learns to stand for herself and be brave, confident, wise and kind to herself.
Angry. Yes. The word settled inside me, hard and sure. I was angry at my mother for leaving. Angry at Sam for pointing out her choice. Angry with myself, for all the times I’d given up or gone along or failed to speak up because I was afraid of being abandoned. Rejected. I was angry at Aunt Em for not loving me enough, at Gray for using me, at Toni for needing me and dropping out, at Dr. Eastwick for dying and Maeve Ward for being alive.
Oh God. I was angry all the time.
Dee also gains a new perspective on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry – maybe they weren’t as unloving as she had previously believed? And, from her good friends, on herself:
“Sometimes pretending isn’t an act of cowardice. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival.”
There are POV chapters from Dee, Sam and Tim. Mostly Dee. Dee feels romantic sparks with both Sam and Tim. But one man in particular wins her love.
“Dee.” He cleared his throat. Took my hands. “I like you. I want to see you. I want to sleep with you again. Tonight and as often as you want.”
I did have one or two questions about Dee’s mother. I picked up the hint of something maybe in one of the lines but maybe I’m reading in too much? I’ve never been much of one for subtext so I can’t be sure. I’m terribly curious though.
My own dad was a man who didn’t say he loved me very often. He was a doer not a talker. (I never had a doubt my dad loved me though!) So I felt like I understood Aunt Em and other characters in the book better because of it.
I got a bit of a kick out of the various Wizard of Oz references and the clever way they were weaved into the story (especially once I realised Dee’s book was, in this world, original). I enjoyed Dee’s relationship with Reeti and watching the changes between Dee and Toni. I liked Sam and Tim and watching them take chances on what would make them happy. I loved the romance, somewhat understated but kind and solid – there is something truly romantic to me about those things. I enjoyed Dee learning to listen to what was not being said and giving grace to others to open up at their own pace – something she later applies to herself as well. And, I liked Maeve, very much. Good witches are overrated I reckon.
“Women who tell the truth have always been called witches.”