May 022014
 

Helen Oyeyemi

With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon. But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story. The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents. —Laura K. Warrell

boy-snow-bird

Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books
Hardcover, 320 pages, $27.95

 

Fairy tales may communicate the universal principals of life but a good story told from a villain’s perspective is often a more delectable read.  Certainly, there is much to learn about the human psyche through contemplating the souls of the wicked; thus we have a tradition of novels, like John Gardner’s Grendel, that retell time-honored tales from the points-of-view of monsters. British novelist Helen Oyeyemi adds her voice to this ever-expanding catalogue, offering her own series of fabulistic novels that weave yarns as bewitching as the classics.

For her fifth book, Oyeyemi wanted to write a wicked stepmother story.  In an interview with Canada’s National Post, she said, “I wanted to rescue the wicked queen from Snow White, because she seemed to find being a villain a bit of a hassle in a lot of ways.”  In Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi reimagines the tale of the girl “with skin as white as snow” and the jealous stepmother who banishes her. Oyeyemi artfully explores the same themes of beauty, vanity and motherhood as the Brothers Grimm did in the source material, but adds other enticing layers of meaning.  The story takes place in a small Massachusetts town in the 1950s when the American South was fully segregated and magazines predicted the “End of [the] Negro race by 1980.”  But even more intriguing is the secret the characters’ family has kept hidden away for generations: they are black people who have been passing for white. Thus, the novel becomes not only an exploration of the worship of beauty, but an elegantly twisted tale about race and identity.

A writer who has been compared to both Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson, and who bristles at the “magic realism” label often affixed to her work, Oyeyemi seems fascinated by the mystical and macabre. Whether the Bluebeard-inspired story of an author’s muse coming to life in Mr. Fox or the eerie tale of a troubled child’s relationship with a ghostly new friend in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s novels straddle the real and unreal. She published The Icarus Girl, her first novel, at the age of nineteen and since then has become one of the youngest writers to be added to Granta’s list of “Best Young British Novelists” and won the Somerset Maugham and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards.

Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in South London where she spent most of her childhood in libraries rewriting classic stories. “I had so many problems with [Little Women]” she said in a National Public Radio interview. “I was so upset with Beth dying, with Jo and Laurie not getting married.  So I just crossed out all those things and wrote new endings. Then I went from there to writing my own things and never really looked back.”

Boy, Snow, Bird begins in New York City where Boy Novak, a beautiful white girl with blonde hair, lives with an abusive father who catches rats for work.  Such a horrifying set of circumstances – “the rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim” – prompts a twenty-year-old Boy to run away to a sleepy New England town called Flax Hill. There, she meets Arturo Whitman, a jewelry maker and widower, and his mesmerizingly beautiful daughter Snow, “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost.”

Arturo eventually proposes to Boy with a handmade bracelet instead of a ring; “a white-gold snake that curled its tail around my wrist and pressed its tongue against the veins in the crook of my elbow…All I could think was: I will fear no evil…That snake was what he’d made for me…was maybe even what he thought I was, deep down.”  Boy’s fate as a wicked stepmother is sealed.  When she gives birth to her daughter Bird, a nurse tells her, “‘That little girl is a Negro’” thus prompting Arturo to reveal his black family’s history of “passing.”

In his mind he was no more colored than I was…his parents were the only ones from their families who’d decided to move north from Louisiana and see if anyone called them out on their ancestry.  His father had stood in line behind a colored man at the front desk of the Flax Hill Country club and eavesdropped as the colored man tried and failed to gain membership…Gerald liked golf and didn’t see why he shouldn’t play it in those surroundings if he could get away with it.  Gerald had thought: Well, what if I just don’t say…what if I never say?  He’d passed that down to Arturo, the idea that there was no need to ever say, that if you knew who you were then that was enough, that not saying was not the same as lying.  

Arturo’s mother Olivia has also passed for white and so refuses to accept her black grandchild, suggesting Boy send Bird to live with Clara, the daughter Olivia sent away for being “dark.”  Instead, Boy sends Snow to Clara, thus alleviating her growing jealousy of the beautiful girl “everybody adored.”

The novel is divided into three parts and the second is told through Bird’s point of view.  It begins with the adolescent girl turning to writing as a way of coping with a family she embarrasses while also trying to connect with her mother who is unashamed of her but cold.  Snow is a regular topic of conversation among the Whitmans who recall the girl’s mythic beauty and grace.

“I have a letter to Snow that I have never sent,” Oyeyemi writes in Bird’s voice.  “Dear Snow, Have you really got to be everywhere?

After Bird discovers a box of letters written to her from Snow, letters her mother has kept from her, the sisters develop a correspondence and more secrets are uncovered.  The third section of the novel returns the narrative to Boy’s point of view as the older, more reflective woman contemplates her choices.  One last secret is revealed in the book’s final chapters, a shocking turn that further underscores the novel’s exploration of the dualistic nature of identity.

Oyeyemi is faithful to much of the Snow White tale: the dead wife Boy replaces in the Whitman family is presented as saintly and “good,” Snow is described as a girl who “looks like a friend to woodland creatures,” and of course, the innocent young beauty is banished.

“Snow is not the fairest of them all,” Oyeyemi writes in Boy’s voice, echoing the Brothers Grimm’s tale.  “And the sooner she and Olivia and all the rest of them understand that, the better.”

But Oyeyemi is also faithful to the literary qualities of fairy tales as she infuses the narrative with supernatural elements.  When Boy arrives in Flat Hill, “insects dropped onto my shoulders, tentatively, as if wondering whether we’d met before.”  Later, she becomes aware of a ghostly presence “on the other side of the saplings” as she takes a walk.  Bird fears that trolls live in her bedroom and believes she can talk to the swarm of spiders she thinks are congregating in her room.

Such moments in the story suggest a curiosity on Oyeyemi’s part to explore what is “real,” but the author seems uninterested in drawing clear lines between these natural and supernatural planes.  The two co-exist in her work, creating an enchanting continuity between the spirit world, the real world and the characters’ imaginations.  There are as many allusions to the fabulistic – Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, genies and poisons in bottles – as there are to the painfully concrete – black boys teaching a parrot to say “Fuck Whitey,” references to the Black Panthers, Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy beaten to death in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Within this context, the contemplation of beauty becomes profoundly more loaded.  In The Guardian, Oyeyemi stated that in Boy, Snow, Bird she wanted to explore the feminine gaze, the ways women seek approval and “who gets to be deemed the fairest of them all.”  Perhaps in no work of literature is the supremacy of white beauty made more explicit than in the tale of Snow White, in which a mother yearns for a child “with skin as white as snow.”  Boy’s white loveliness contrasted with what the Whitman family considers Bird’s unappealing blackness is only the first layer of the author’s exploration.  It is the Whitman family’s passing, in particular Snow’s apparently white beauty, that gives the novel its philosophical spine and its evil queen her dimension.

“Snow’s beauty is all the more precious…because it’s a trick,” says Boy.  “When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl – we don’t see a colored girl standing there.  The joke’s on us…From this I can only…begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow.  What can I do for my daughter?  One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

One way to read Snow’s expulsion from the Whitman home is as an attempt by Boy to protect herself from the threat of the girl’s beauty, this from a woman who has been presented throughout the novel as obsessed with her appearance.  However, another way to read Boy’s decision is as an attempt to protect her black daughter from Snow, who otherwise would act as a constant reminder of the adoration and social inclusion Bird will undoubtedly be denied.

Oyeyemi includes a lengthy but beautifully written series of letters the sisters send to one another, which she uses to dig deeper into the notion of passing.  Snow lets Bird know that their family has been practicing “calculated breeding” for generations, monitoring the skin tone and hair texture of family members and lamenting the birth of dark children like Clara and Bird.  Living in a more racially diverse town, Snow has experienced racism in a way Bird has not, and describes how she avoids racist taunts yet feels unable to defend her black friends against them.  She also describes how her political awareness has evolved having spent most of her life with the exiled black members of the family.

“You can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this,” she writes to Bird.

Bird repeatedly asks Snow to describe how she experiences her immense beauty, a request Snow mostly denies until finally she admits, “I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes.  I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow.”

The sisters bond over many things but nothing connects them more than their shared inability to see themselves in mirrors.  Oyeyemi uses mirrors in the novel more than any other image or symbol, in fact, it is the backbone to the plot, much like her original source.  In “Reading Snow White: The Mother’s Story,” scholar Shuli Barzilai discusses Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage in human development and suggests that the magic mirror in Snow White is central to the evil queen’s connection to and separation from herself, her daughter and the world around her.

“The queen’s confrontations with her magic mirror,” Barzilai writes, “set and keep the plot of ‘Snow White’ in motion.”

Mirrors perform the same function in Boy, Snow, Bird.  All three of the main characters, and some of the minor characters, interact intimately with mirrors, which reveals the internal conflicts that push the story forward.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” says Boy in the first line of the novel.  “So for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  To Boy, everything becomes a mirror; she ogles herself in picture frames, brass pitchers and dessert spoons.  Mirrors are a way for Boy to come to “familiar terms” with herself as she communicates with and understands her identity through viewing her own reflection, for instance, when she tells her reflection “look what I got you” after finding a husband in Arturo.

“Mirrors see so much,” she says, a concept that supports a Jungian interpretation of the Snow White myth put forth by Barzilai, which suggests that Snow White is not a separate person whose presence threatens the queen but the queen’s shadow side, i.e., the “Snow White in herself.”  Such an interpretation seems even more viable after Boy becomes pregnant and is unable to see her reflection clearly in the mirror.

“When I stood in front of the mirror,” Oyeyemi writes, “the icy blonde was there, but I couldn’t swear to the fact of her being me.  She was no clearer to me than my shadow was.  I came to prefer my shadow.”

Bird’s interactions with mirrors are the opposite of her mother’s.

“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me,” she says.  “I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.”  Bird decides that the reason she is unable to see herself is because she is either not human or “someone [was] wishing and willing me out of sight.”

Snow also fails to show up in mirrors but she has a different explanation than her sister’s.

“My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there,” Oyeyemi writes.  “But I am, so maybe she’s not really me.”

Mirrors, which also feature in the surprise twist in the plot’s final chapters, are only one of the elements working within the stratums of meaning Oyeyemi layers into this piece.  With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon.  But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story.  The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents.

—Laura K. Warrell

.Laura K Warrell
Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.

 

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