Is there any relationship so fraught as the one between mothers and daughters? There is so much emotional, cultural, and historical baggage just waiting for the moment when a mother and daughter first set eyes on each other that its no wonder Freud had so much material to work with when he was starting his practice. There are mothers and daughters all over the place in Helen Oyeyemi’s magical novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. The relationships are further complicated by race and aesthetics and the legacy of abuse. This is the kind of novel that English majors dream of. It’s so full of meaning just waiting to be unpacked, but it’s also written so that you could share it with your non-English major friends and—for once—they won’t think you mental when you natter on about how much you enjoyed reading it.
Boy Novak runs away from her violent father, the rat catcher, one night in the early 1950s. She uses all the money she could find to ride a bus to the end of its line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has no practical skills. She doesn’t rely on her startling beauty to attract a mate—though many of the other characters suspect that’s what she’s up to. She eventually marries Arturo Whitman, but she doesn’t love him. They suit each other. Boy moves in with widower Arturo and his daughter, Snow. The trio are content until Boy becomes pregnant. Once her daughter, Bird, is born, the delicate balance in the Whitman family is destroyed.
Bird’s skin color reveals a secret the matriarch of the Whitman clan was hoping to hide from the world. The Whitmans are, in the eyes of society, “colored”—but many of them have pale enough skin that they can “pass” for white. Even in Massachusetts, that still matters. Snow is pale, too, and many of the older members of the family treasure her and spoil her. Boy fears that they will shun or mistreat Bird because she reminds them of their origins. So she has Snow sent away to live in Boston with her aunt and uncle.
Reviewers of Boy, Snow, Bird, have remarked that this novel is a retelling of the Snow White story. It is, but I saw the fairy tale as the framework under this amazingly layered narrative. Fairy tales and folk tales appear throughout the novel. All of the stories are about beautiful women and the price they pay for that beauty. It’s impossible to read these stories without wondering what the characters mean by telling them. Oyeyemi’s characters cry out for psychoanalysis; they all have mother issues.
Unlike in Snow White, there is no clear villain. Oyeyemi’s novel is narrated in turns by Boy and Bird. Because you’re inside their heads, you’re told why they act the way they do. Boy’s actions—even though I think they backfire—make sense. Not that she’s entirely justified in her actions, of course. Snow also gets to have her own say, in the form of letters to Bird during the last half of Boy, Snow, Bird. I loved that Oyeyemi did this because it throws shade on a character everyone thinks is perfect. Oyeyemi has lifted characters out of a fairy tale and made them real people.
The more I write here about Boy, Snow, Bird, the more I also think this would be a perfect book for a good book club. There is so much to talk and think about in this book!