Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel by Helen Oyeyemi that claims to be a retelling of the classic Snow White fairytale. Except is it not just a retelling, it is a reimagining. The story is set in the fictional town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts in 1950’s America, and does not shy away from this fact. It not only tells the story of Snow White, it also tackles racism, colorism, beauty myths, and the influence that mothers have over their children.
Boy Novak is our first perspective. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she is physically and mentally abused by her father, Frank. It is this constant abuse that makes her numb to the world. Boy goes through life as if on a treadmill – simply walking, never asking for more. Even after escaping the abuse by running away at 20, Boy is continuously processing her trauma. She often thinks of her absent mother, “Don’t ever try to find her. Don’t even try to find out if she’s alive. This way my mother’s alive, she’s dead, she’s whatever she deserves to be on that particular day” (48). Her mother’s unknown status and her father’s abuse both influence how she sees motherhood.
After running away Boy ends up in Flax Hill. This is where we are introduced to Arturo Whitman and his daughter, Snow. When Boy first meets Snow, she is enchanted by her. She pursues a romantic relationship with Arturo and questions if her motives are love for him or his daughter (it turns out to be both). Snow lost her mother in childbirth, and Boy connects with her due to their shared lack of mothering. She even says, “When she and I are around each other, we’re giving each other something we’ve never had, or taking back something we’ve lost” (109). Boy is learning how to be a mother, while Snow is learning how to be loved by one. This love does not last forever, though.
Boy is white, and she believes the same of Arturo and Snow. However, when she gives birth to Arturo’s child, the baby is a dark-skinned African-American. The child is named Bird. Bird effectively outs the Whitmans as white-passing. Boy is astonished by this, and is disgruntled when Olivia, Bird’s grandmother, suggests she sends the child away to Clara – her dark-skinned daughter. Bird’s birth opens Boy’s eyes to the way the Whitmans treat Snow. She reflects on this: “Snow's beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it's a trick. When whites look at her, they don't get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl—we don't see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us” (139). Boy’s love for Snow is tainted by Olivia’s hatred for Bird. Even though she is white, she sees how problematic Oliva’s thinking is. Boy talks to Clara on the phone about how she felt when she was sent away:
“‘Your mother sent you away?’
‘Yes, she sent me to Mississippi to live with my aunt Effie.’
‘And you’re not…mad at her?’
‘No, Boy. I don’t like her much, but I’m not mad at her…You didn’t have a mother yourself, did you?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘And you’re all right, aren’t you? We turn out all right.’
(Do we?)” (144).
Boy shocks the family by sending Snow away to live with Clara, because she wants to protect Bird from the inevitable comparisons the two would receive. Boy is not particularly warm, but it is obvious that she cares for Bird deeply. While she was an Evil Stepmother to Snow, she tried her hardest to be good to Bird. Boy is not one dimensional. She doesn’t dislike Snow because she is personally threatened by her beauty, like in the original tale. Boy believes Snow’s beauty threatens Bird’s beauty, which equates to her self-worth. Boy just didn’t foresee how depriving Bird of a sister would hurt her like it did.
Bird is our second perspective. We catch up with her at 13 years old. She is a headstrong reporter-in-the-making, smart but gets bad grades, and in love with a boy named Louis. Due to her journalist aspirations, she is keen on finding out who the “enemy” is. She sees a pattern in her news articles and there always an enemy, so who is hers? Once she discovers her mom’s betrayal, she thinks it just might be her. Snow has written several letters to Bird, all of which Boy intercepted and hid away. Once Bird finds and reads them, she contemplates, “I felt less sure that Mom wasn’t the enemy” (186). Again, we see Boy framed as an Evil Stepmother. Bird loves her mom, despite not understanding her actions sometimes. Just like the letters, Boy has hidden her past from her family. Do any of us truly know our mother’s history? Why she does the things she does? Still, some of Bird’s trust evaporated when she found those letters.
Bird begins sending Snow letters. We get some of Snow’s perspective through the letters between her and Bird. We see that Boy’s decision has, obviously, made Snow resent her. She writes, “I felt like I’d been discarded for another toy that was better, more lifelike (you). People sometimes said, ‘What a beautiful little girl,’ but I thought that beautiful was bad” (231). Beautiful was bad because Snow feels that was the reason why she was sent away, and she’s not wrong. Bird cannot comprehend this as she wishes to be seen as beautiful. When Snow visits for Thanksgiving, all of Flax Hill fawns over her. And for a second, Bird feels a pang of envy. However, Bird realizes that this is out of Snow’s control. She says, “She was used to being treated like this. It was nothing to her. I had a moment of hating her…Thankfully it came and went really quickly…Does she know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her” (266). Unlike her mom, Bird understands that Snow cannot control how others see her.
We again get Boy’s perspective in the final part of the novel. Now that she has faced Snow, guilt comes creeping in. How could she have treated this girl that she once loved like this? To keep Bird safe. Seeing Snow has made Boy wonder why she was afraid of her in the first place. She sees Snow as a distorted reflection of herself. There is a screen between them, and that screen represents Boy’s difficulty at becoming close to people. Snow reminds Boy of herself, they are both motherless and afraid to get close to each other. Boy knows that she should’ve taken care of Snow, just as she wished her own mother had. Still, she doesn’t believe she made the wrong decision. She’s just sad that she had to sacrifice Snow to do it. Boy defines her true enemy for us – the worship of whiteness. She believes that “it’s not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness…we beat Them…by declining to worship” (275). It is interesting how Oyeyemi has the white character come to this conclusion, but I suppose it further illustrates her point about the Whitmans clinging to whiteness.
Boy, Snow, and Bird are three women in a fractured family. The enemy is not each other, but society’s determination of what is beautiful and who is worthy. Even within the African-American community, we see dark-skinned people being treated poorly when compared to their light-skinned peers. It’s a harsh truth that Oyeyemi explores through the 1950s, especially for those that don’t realize its current relevance.
Oyeyemi, Helen. Boy, Snow, Bird. Riverhead Books, 2014.