When I was younger, I fell in love with the original versions of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. They were the opposite of the cloying and soporific Disney versions, with twisted darkness that appealed to me at the time. Perhaps that’s why I so enjoyed reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, which reminded me of not just reading those tales, but that time of my life when I was young and trying to figure out my way in the world.
Set in the 1950s, the novel draws its title from the three main characters. The main narrator is Boy Novak, the daughter of an abusive father that we only know as the Ratcatcher. After he tries to feed her face to the rats he keeps in the basement, she flees to a small town in Massachusetts and tries on different jobs much as one might a change of clothes. Eventually she falls in love with a jeweler, Arturo Whitman, and his bewitching daughter Snow. But when Boy and Arturo have a daughter named Bird, the Whitman family’s long-held secret is revealed: they are light-skinned African Americans who have been “passing” as white. To keep their secret, they’ve been marrying light-skinned or white people and sending away any offspring that might disprove the myth of whiteness, including Arturo’s sister Clara. The Whitman family expects Arturo and Boy to send Bird to be raised by Clara, but instead she sends Snow.
Bird grows up mostly being ignored by her extended family. Her sister Snow was the beloved child, after all. Eventually Bird gets to know her sister through letters and learns that Snow’s life has had its own set of challenges. The entire novel echoes with myths and fairy tales. What is it like to think you’re white until someone tells you you’re not? Is Boy the wicked stepmother or someone trying to break the curse? Who is the fairest person looking in the mirror? This simple seeming story gets quite complicated as questions of identity arise and some appearances that you took for granted turn out not to be quite what they seem. As the charm spell wears off Boy, she begins to realize that spells only work if you believe in them and that is when she decides to change the ending of the fairy tale.