This highly acclaimed new novel by Helen Oyeyemi has been called a modern retake on the fairy tale of Snow White. In fact, it is a fairy tale that deals with tropes common to many fairy tales: wicked stepmothers, abandonment, evil forces that prey on innocent young girls, curses. But the overriding theme is female beauty, particularly society’s predilection for whiteness. We imagine beauty as powerful and empowering to those who possess it, but it frequently engenders fear and malevolence in others, resulting in endangerment and harm to the possessor.
Boy, Snow and Bird are the main characters in the novel. Boy is a female with platinum blond hair and striking eyes. The novel begins with her story of running away from home in New York City in the early 1950s when she was 20 years old. Boy has never known her mother, and her father, the rat catcher, is sinister and abusive. Boy’s beauty brings out the worst in him. Boy ends up in Flax Hill, MA, where she takes on and fails at a series of jobs. She eventually winds up at a bookstore owned by Alecto Fletcher, who has spent decades in Flax Hill. She knows its secrets but keeps her own counsel and becomes a wise advisor for Boy. Snow is the young, beautiful daughter of Arturo Whitman. Snow is fair skinned and dark haired, a lovely child upon whom her two grandmothers dote. Arturo is a dark and brooding widower who has left his professorship to take up metal work and jewelry design. He and Boy do not initially hit it off but are drawn to each other and marry. The birth of their daughter Bird causes distress within the family. Bird is dark skinned, and Boy discovers the secret that the Whitman family has tried to keep for generations — that they are, in fact, light skinned African Americans. Boy succeeds in having Snow sent away to other Whitman relatives, and the story then follows Bird’s adolescence and her rediscovery of her older half sister, her mother’s father and the truth about both sides of her family.
This novel is three chapters long, with narration shifting from Boy to Bird and then back to Boy. One of the things I love about this novel is the tale telling within the larger narrative. There are several fairy tales that are told by characters to each other, and they usually have to do with female beauty as a double-edged sword. In one tale, a magician who has power over women’s looks and behavior is stymied by a very beautiful woman who is not overcome by his spells. Her own husband fears her, although she seems to be an efficient and productive wife. When the magician asks her to teach him her magic she says, “‘ It isn’t magic …. It’s just that I’m well dressed. You men who try to tell me I’m a scarecrow … don’t you understand that you’re not really addressing me? It’s more as if you’re talking to a coat I’m wearing.'” This is a woman who is in control of her beauty and its power, and men fear her and think her evil. The tale of La Belle Capuchine is quite different. La Belle Capuchine was a beautiful dark skinned house slave who disdained other slaves and ignored them, causing a footman suitor to accuse her of being a traitor. She made the most of her beauty in a white world but when that world fell apart, her fellow emancipated slaves left her behind. “…[S]he was truly free. She loved no one and she was unloved.”
The preference of whiteness and the association of whiteness with beauty is a central theme of this novel. To this end, Oyeyemi makes clever use of the mirror motif. Boy, who is white, frequently admires who own reflection in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. When two reflecting surfaces oppose each other, she can see herself into infinity. I found it very interesting that for Bird and Snow, there are times when they cannot see their own reflections in a mirror. Bird says, “Sometimes mirrors can’t find me.” It called to mind that in the Snow White tale that most of us know, the Wicked Witch can use a mirror to see who is more beautiful than she is. If you cannot even see yourself in a mirror, what does that say? Boy says, “…it’s not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness.” Whiteness as the epitome of beauty is a social construct that can, and should, be knocked down. But of course in the 1950s and 1960s when this novel takes place, and even still today, that is a social construct that is hard to destroy.
Oyeyemi’s writing talent is formidable. She can describe horrific scenes of abuse and terror and yet also make you laugh while crafting this amazing tale that seems familiar but has been made new. One of my favorite lines comes from Bird: “You know how it is when someone says your name really well, like it means something that makes the world a better place. In Louis Chen’s case, he sometimes says my name as if it were a lesser-known word for bacon.” Oyeyemi puts together a really profound and provocative tale, and I loved the way this one ended. I found the message empowering: we can break enchantments by making people tired of them, by exposing them as false.