by Helen Oyeyemi
One cold winter in the 1950s, Boy Novak leaves her rat-catcher father. She flees from her life in New York to a small town in Massachusetts, where she finds employment at a small book shop. She soon marries Arturo, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his daughter, a bright child named Snow. When Boy’s daughter Bird is born, the family’s secret is revealed: Arturo and his family are light-skinned African-Americans passing as white. Boy sends Snow away to live with her aunt, but as the years pass Bird becomes curious about her half-sister and decides to hunt her down. Boy, Snow, Bird is a haunting, dark spin on the classic fairy tale Snow White, utterly transforming the classic story into something new.
Fairy tale retellings have been all the rage in the last decade, and it’s hard to find a truly fresh take on one of these classic stories. Oyeyemi’s novel succeeds because she doesn’t force her adaptation to be a literal retelling. There’s no magic, no dwarves, no poisoned apple. But the story still has recognizable elements: a loveless stepmother, a beautiful child, and a hunter.
I say that there’s no magic, but that isn’t quite true. Mirrors and reflections play an unusual and important role in the story. There’s no “Mirror mirror on the wall” speech and inanimate objects never talk back to Boy or Snow, but reflections reveal much throughout the narrative.
Race and identity are intimately tied up in each character’s experience. It’s New England in the 1950s and 1960s, after all! One of the reasons Boy fascinates the Whitman family is her beautiful platinum blond hair; in many ways, she’s the epitome of “white” beauty, and Arturo’s marriage to her is considered a triumph. Snow is doted upon by her grandparents because she is so very white-looking; when dark-sinned Bird is growing up her grandmother barely takes notice of her.
Boy, the evil stepmother, is surprisingly sympathetic. While some of her views are fairly progressive – when she finds out that her husband’s family is African-American she barely reacts – others are not. She rarely shares the motivation for her actions with the reader, leaving us to guess. Why did she send Snow away? Was she punishing Auturo’s family by sending away the grandchild they loved? Was it to protect Bird, so she wouldn’t have to grow up constantly compared to her light-skinned sister? Does she genuinely dislike the child? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things; perhaps Boy herself isn’t sure why. Usually it bothers me when writers leave motivation so vague, but this story has such a shifting, dream-like quality that the uncertainly suits it perfectly.
5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Written in Red by Anne Bishop
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Three Cups of Criticism: Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes censure Greg Mortenson's work
2010: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees
2009: Completely nothing to do with books – sorry!