Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is set in a small, New England town in the 1950’s and is a story of deceit, beauty, and envy. This novel is a powerful retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm tale Little Snow White, but the heroine is the evil queen, not Snow White. Boy, the main character, runs away from her abusive father and hides in this small town, but she is not the only one. There are whole families disguising their true selves. They are deceitful, but they are also resourceful. Passing is usually attributed to African-Americans who pass as white, but here it is used for everyone who is pretending to be something they are not. While passing, these characters are able to blend in, but they also lose themselves. Passing is a privilege though; one must be born with the gift of beauty or skin color in order to deceive.
Boy is complex; she does not love, but she reaches out to others and protects what is her own. Boy, beaten by her father, was never taught to love and has endured only through her will to survive. In her own life, her father tells her she is ugly and not worth anything, “No matter what anybody else said or did my father saw something revolting in me, and sooner or later he meant to make everybody else agree with him.” And yet, the mirror she looked into said something different, it lied to her, showing her beauty when she was told there was none, “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.” Mirrors only show outward appearance; they show beauty when there may be none and they show smiles when there may only be sadness. Boy is deceived by these mirrors and what they told her. But Oyeyemi’s novel shows that mirrors are not the only reflection we receive of ourselves—we are also revealed through how others perceive us.
Oyeyemi said in an NPR interview that she wanted to show how beauty “is used against its holder.” Boy’s father abuses her in order to protect her from beauty, something he understands as deceitful and dangerous. In most fairytales, beauty is shown as a powerful force that predicts whether someone is good or evil. Alluring Snow White is beautiful and happy, despite all of her problems, while the evil queen becomes uglier as she becomes more evil. But, in this novel, beauty is unreliable. Like mirrors, beauty may show that someone is a good person, but that person may not really be good at all. For example, the novel’s Whitman family, who is passing as white, pretend to be a perfect pedigree family. Olivia Whitman holds weekly tea parties and her husband is an avid golfer. They live in a large, beautiful house. But Olivia is not wonderful at all. She is beautiful on the outside, but evil on the inside. She hides more than anyone else, yet everyone in the town praises and fears her for her beauty.
Snow is also prized for her beauty. She is treated like an object, only two-dimensional at most. Bird is the only person in the town who really understands and loves Snow,
I was getting angry. Angry about the things people were saying, the way they were making Snow sound like some kind of ornament just passing by… not even passing by, but being passed around. Everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. Nice to look at for an afternoon, but we’ll breathe easier once she’s safely back at the museum. I was beginning to hate people because of the way they talked about my sister, because of the way they didn’t really want her.
Beauty is powerful because one can hide behind it, but one can also be lost within it. Ugliness stands out, but so does beauty. Beautiful looks garner harassment just as poor looks do. People assume that Snow is perfect and valuable simply because of her beauty; they do not stop to think what else she could be. Snow cannot hide her beauty any more than she can hide her skin color. Others may wish to stand out and be beautiful, but Snow shows that beauty comes with a price. The price is that you can never be a blank slate to passerby’s—Snow can never reinvent herself or blend in. There is one jarring scene where Snow describes going to a bar with some African-American friends and being harassed because some white men believed she was white. Snow simply wants to fit in, but she never can.
While portraying the dishonest power of looks, Oyeyemi also depicts how cruel women can be. Little Snow White is the story of a little girl who loses her happiness because her stepmother is envious of her beauty. Boy, Snow, Bird is the same story of the power struggle between women. Snow loves Boy, but Boy is envious of Snow’s beauty and the effect it may have on her daughter. Olivia, Snow’s grandmother, hates her daughter for not being beautiful enough. We cannot understand the preconceived misconceptions we have about one another, but we can work to change those misconceptions. Boy, Snow, Bird is the tale of deceit, but it is also the tale of forgiveness and recovery, of finding your place in the world, even if that place is not where you always wanted to be.
Claiming that she would be the kind of psychologist that would tell children that monsters are real, Helen Oyeyemi, like her characters, has a fantastical imagination and believes that feelings have as much power as actions. Oyeyemi has a knack for taking already dark fairy tales and weaving them into modern society. Her novels and plays deal with real issues, like racism, in a fairytale setting that every child and adult can relate to. Her previous novels, Mr. Fox (2011) and White is for Witching (2009), both deal with fairytales gone awry and even her novels, The Icarus Girl (2005) and The Opposite House (2007), and her plays, Juniper’s Whitening and Victemese, have fantastical elements to them. Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria, but now lives in various places around Europe. She wrote her first novel while getting her A-levels and has been writing ever since.
(Featured image by Marc Burckhardt courtesy of The New York Times)