Thursday, April 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

The blurb:
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 a stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.  

A wicked stepmother us a creature Bit never imagined she'd become, but elements of the familiar aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy's daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned expose 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.

In Boy, Snow, Bird  we read a subversive reversal of sorts of the story of Snow White.  Told from the point of view of Snow's stepmother, we learn of her marginalized status growing up, the humiliation and exclusion that came with her poverty.  Oyeyemi describes with sympathy and humor what Boy went through as she nervously faced the socially superior and wealthy family of her suitor.  It is easy to sympathize with her sense of isolation and social discomfort and somehow Boy becomes very different from the Disney stepmother that we'd grown up with.

In small ways, through stories of Boy's friends and acquaintances, Oyeyemi gently discusses beauty, how quickly it passes, and how we allow or don't allow ourselves to be defined by our beauty.   Also woven into the story are anecdotes and reminders of what it was like to be African American during that time - the physical violence, the subtle prejudices, and sympathy for the struggle to be seen beyond one's color or race.  

Snow in Boy, Snow Bird is very different from the Disney sweet princess.  She's very aware of her beauty, of how her lightness/whiteness makes her desirable and valued in her family and of how she subtly dismisses and hurts the darker members of her family.   As we see Snow from Boy's point of view, it's harder to like this version of the girl.  Her dark half-sister, Bird, is a much more sympathetic character and there is considerable tension from not knowing what sort of mischief Snow might play on her younger sister.  

  • ISBN-10: 1594631395 - Hardcover $27.95
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (March 6, 2014), 320 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Reviewer Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently, White is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, and Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.  In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists. 

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