We all know the story of Snow White, the beautiful girl who, through no fault of her own, simply because of her goodness and beauty, is targeted by evil. However, Afro-British writer Helen Oyeyemi has turned the myth on its head with an exploration of what the cult of the “fairest of them all” implies for people of color.
“Boy, Snow, Bird” isn’t exactly a modernized rewriting of the Snow White myth or a simple reversal of the Snow White legend told from the viewpoint of the villain. It dips into a lot of categories, including family drama and 30s film noir. Oyeyemi’s plot twists in unexpected ways, constantly surprising the reader, but at bottom it’s about the difference between reality and our perceptions and expectations.
As in Snow White, mirrors play an essential role in the story from the opening sentence: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” As “Boy” tells the story of how she became stepmother to “Snow,” Oyeyemi confronts the way we categorize people and situations along the lines not only of race but also of gender. That’s clear from the moment the reader learns that “Boy” is a girl, though the significance of her name doesn’t become clear until close to the end.
While the book may reference the story of Snow White, the “fairy tale,” — suffused with what might be called magical realism with a New York accent — is really more about Boy and her mixed-race daughter, Bird. Boy is the daughter of Frank Novak: “Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something. Suppose your father’s a rat catcher. … Your father is an old-fashioned man; he kills rats the way his grandfather taught him.” So that’s her papa; “Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys … and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned.”
Fed up with her abusive father, Boy runs away at age 20, taking a bus at random from Grand Central Station. She ends up in a small Massachusetts town full of artisans who make things to sell to rich people. She marries a widower with a beautiful daughter, Snow, whom everyone loves and who is sweet as can be. Boy soon is pregnant herself.
But Boy, who is white, is in for a surprise when she has a dark-skinned daughter, Bird. She learns for the first time that her husband and his family are actually African-Americans “passing” for white. Not only that, but her husband has a darker skinned sister, Clara, who was “sent away,” back to Biloxi, Miss., because she married someone who was also darker than the rest of the family. It is the late 1950s, and the Massachusetts town has barely desegregated its schools. One of Boy’s responses to the situation, as she realizes that her own daughter, Bird, will always be unfavorably compared to her stepdaughter Snow, is to send Snow to live with the dark-skinned Clara in Mississippi.
Oyeyemi plays with our perceptions of who people are, what romance is about, and the communities to which people belong. In the first part of the book, Boy rejects her high school sweetheart, whom she loves, because she knows it won’t be healthy to marry someone who just wants to take care of her. In the second part, Snow, the “fairest of them all,” is raised in a community of color and configures herself — her hair, her dress, her language — to be perceived as African American, even while her family back in Massachusetts pretends to be white. Because Snow is so light-skinned, people admire her and celebrate her — but very few love her, because they can’t see who she is.
Meanwhile, Bird, who is unmistakably African American, grows up in a mostly white town. Like many people of color in a white-dominated society, she finds that she is sometimes invisible, particularly when she’s looking in a mirror.
Oyeyemi strikes a good balance between the genres of family drama and fairy tale. Boy and Bird, who take turns narrating the story, have unique voices that keep the reader guessing as to what’s going to happen next. The town itself, always a little odd and unreal, seems in keeping with the mythic quality of the story. The main characters, archetypal as they are, seem fully realized. The reconciliation between Boy, Snow and Bird could have become a little sweet, but Oyeyemi clearly had no intention of letting that happen.
Unfortunately, she also either had trouble finding a good ending to this engrossing tale or else felt she had to tie up some loose threads. Boy’s missing mother — and Boy’s own name — turn out to be keys to understanding her father’s viciousness. But instead of reaching a satisfying ending with this revelation, Boy, Snow and Bird are suddenly off to New York, with a conclusion so abrupt the reader might think that Oyeyemi’s planning a sequel. But do fairy tales get to have sequels?
Only time will tell.