Lion, tigers and bears, oh my!

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A Lion Among Men, volume three in the Wicked Years series, is Gregory Maguire’s latest return to his fictional playground of Oz. As in previous novels, he continues to use this metaphor-rich land to draw out parallels to our current social and political situation.

Wicked was Gregory Maguire’s first book to borrow Frank L. Baum’s wonderful world of Oz, transforming its seemingly simple universe into a complex mirror of our own country. Wicked‘s evocative questions about good and evil have inspired the Tony winning Broadway play of the same name.

Although Maguire initially intended Wicked to be a stand-alone novel, the recent political upheavals inspired him to write a second book about Oz, Son of a Witch. This novel raised questions about a soldier’s duty to follow his commander’s orders.

It addressed the sticky moral dilemma created by the fact that an army doesn’t allow its soldiers to make decisions on their own about whether something is morally wrong or right, but it is these same soldiers who have to live with the consequences of their individual actions.

A Lion Among Men begins about a decade after Son of a Witch leaves off. War is sweeping through Oz, setting up a tone of impending danger that lurks behind all the novel’s scenes.

The economy, dependent on the trolls, has suffered due to the war and there have been massive layoffs and decreases in income. The current ruler of Oz has bled the treasury dry preparing troops for a possible attack. Banks charge 30 percent for withdrawals made by individuals they deem unimportant.

In this eerily familiar backdrop, The Cowardly Lion, named Brrr, is forced to remember his orphaned childhood and the circumstances that have brought him to the present.

Without parents to teach Brrr how to be a Lion, he has to learn by watching people and other Animals. (In Maguire’s Oz there are animals that lack human characteristics and there are Animals who are much like humans in an animal-shape.)

What is courage? Brrr searches throughout the book for the answer to this question. Although he matures and learns from each experience, it’s never really certain whether he ever fully understands what it means to have courage. Maguire wisely sidesteps, giving us a simple answer to a complex question.

He raises other important questions in A Lion Among Men as well: If you don’t have good parents as role models, can you still be a good parent? Is there an unnamed God? Is the most qualified person in charge of the nation? If not, what do we do about it?

Lions, tigers, bears, tree elves, dragons and other creatures help keep the book from getting too heavy. A reader could easily get lost in Maguire’s cute word play and ignore the references to modern politics. There are plenty of fun images to keep readers entertained, such as the Bears who get drunk from fermented honey.

A Lion Among Men should be read for both pleasure and thematic insight. Maguire offers suggestions to citizens of not only Oz, but also the United States, such as “The smallest indivisible part of a nation worth defending is not a field, a lake, a city, an industry but a child.”

Children often get left behind and forgotten during war. Education suffers because funds are going toward tanks and armor rather than schools and books. Maguire gives a gentle suggestion that perhaps we need to refocus our priorities.

And for those of you kicking back during elections, planning not to vote, Maguire reminds us that, “Not to act is to act, too.”

A Lion Among MenGregory Maguire****1/2$26.95

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