In Boy, Snow, Bird, author Helen Oyeyemi gives us a retelling of Snow White laced with elements of magical realism.
In 1953, Boy Novak flees her abusive father, a brutal rat-catcher, and finds herself in a little town in New England called Flax Hill, many of whose residents are artists and craftsmen. Here, Boy makes the acquaintance of a widower, Arturo Whitman and his small daughter, Snow. Boy marries Arturo and enjoys the fact that she will be a mother to Snow, who is innocent and loved by all. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, she finds out that her husband’s family has been concealing their African American heritage.
Although Snow loves her baby sister, Boy starts to find Snow’s naïve charm cloying and sly. When her mother-in-law suggests that no one will judge Boy for sending Bird to live with Arturo’s darker-skinned sister, Boy decides to instead send Snow away. Thus, Bird and Snow grow up in different realities – Snow with her free-spirited aunt and Bird with her loving parents but chilly grandmother. As the years pass and Bird enters her teenage years, she gets closer to discovering family secrets and the cost of denying one’s identity.
Despite its magical aspirations, Oyeyemi’s book is firmly grounded in realistic fiction, with strong themes of racial and gender identity. However, its light, whimsical approach necessitates digging deeper to get Oyeyemi’s full intended message. At times subtle and surprising, the story is not one to take at face value. On the outside, there is the story of a girl who runs away to make a better life for herself, finding a man who is both loving and well-established, with an adorable daughter who is eager to have a mother again. Then, there’s the other, deeper layer to the story, told by Bird as she grows up and realizes she cannot see her reflection in the mirror. The strong psychological and sociological elements demonstrated through the characters’ thoughts and actions make the book poignant, and Oyeyemi’s lyrical writing makes it into a pleasurable read. The story itself is entertaining – at times even a page turner – and the ending is quite unexpected.