Book Review: Boy, Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

“We’re friendly toward strangers because of a general belief (I don’t know where it comes from) that we’re born strangers and that the memory of how that feels never really leaves us.”

I found this book on some recommendation list a while ago. I think it was based on fairy tale retellings or somesuch. Either way, I looked it up when I could – a girl named Boy and all that. It sounded charming if a little confusing.

It i so much more than that.

As always – beware of the spoilers! 

 

 Synopsis:

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

 

It is true that this is a retelling of sorts – elements of Snow White are prevalent, though you don’t know it until you’ve read through a good portion of it. We start with Boy as she contemplates, and finally goes through with, leaving NYC and her father, the Ratcatcher, behind for good. She’s had a long, lonely life of abuse and disappointment, with only one friend to help her along. When he leaves, she decides to finally leave too. And off she goes, with some stolen cash and nowhere in particular to get to. She ends up in Flax Hill MA, a small town that seems perfect for her – small enough to grow in and make something of herself. She starts at boarding house with a slew of other young women, all with ambitions of their own – mostly with expectations of marrying well and being done with the single life of a girl in the 1950s (read: not fun). Through a series of jobs, going out with her new friend Mia, and getting to know Flax Hill, Boy eventually meets widower Arturo Whitman. Theirs is not exactly a love at first sight. 

“Because he says he can’t stand you and you act like you can’t stand him, and whenever a man and a woman behave like that toward each other, it usually means something’s going on.”

But eventually they do get together, even though there is something off for Boy  – something that resonates strongest when she thinks of or deals with her beau’s lily white daughter, Snow. Despite that, she marries him in a rushed way, and soon finds herself pregnant. When the baby is born – a girl they name Bird – Boy finds herself in the role of a wicked stepmother somewhat surprisingly. She also discovers that her husband and his family have been living a lie: they’re not white but light skinned African-Americans. The pressures of this – the family dynamics, the focus on whiteness for the Whitman children and other tension cause Boy to react negatively to Snow – something that makes up a great deal of the theme for the latter half of the book, when the perspective switches from Boy to Bird. 

In general, this book deals with race relations in a specific time and place as a reflection of the greater, widespread societal norms of the time. Particularly, the Whitmans’ story, as told mostly through Arturo’s mother (and his former mother-in-law) reflects that. There is an underlying cageyness to all their dealings, before and after Boy finds out about their origins. The cageyness is both necessary and repugnant in equal measures. As Boy listens to the history of the Whitmans you can empathize. Until they get to the part where they kept two of their children –  the ones that could pass for white – and sent the darker one away to live with relatives so as not to “out” themselves. There is a guttural reaction to a parents sending their children away in general, but to send a child away through no fault of their own, just because they were born a certain way? Inconceivable. And yet, this is the perfect backdrop to the story as, after Bird is born dark, Boy decides to send Snow away. 

The genius of this book is in the storytelling itself – all the little parallels between the characters that allow for different threads to be weaved into the narrative. You have Boy, a motherless child who becomes a stepmother and then rejects another motherless child. Her own child has both mother and father, but only a hazy understanding of a sister. Bird also has grandmothers – one who can be cruel, the other who is not actually related to her but has somewhat adopted her (being the actual grandmother of Snow). The way these themes play off the fairy tale elements of the story make them more pronounced and entirely nuanced – as if you’re looking at what the story could have been back before the special effects and MPAA ratings were considered.

The themes of motherhood, the relationships between mothers and daughters and the sacrifices women have to make in order to continue on are all present, reverberating through the stories in ways that keep you guessing – particularly when you don’t think there is anywhere left to go. I won’t spoil the last thread of the story for anyone who happens upon this review, but suffice it to say, the whole of the stories come around full circle, making a macabre sort of sense to what came before them and lending a particular mission statement or call to arms for the reader. It’s like saying, not all is what it seems, hard choices are never quite black or white, but a lot of the world sucks, and by banding together, you can reject it. 

For my part, I will leave you with this quote: 

“It’s not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things– fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too… we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship.”

Go ahead and read this – it’s not an entirely easy read, but I think it is a very good one. 

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