(Image from C/W Mars catalog)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is not at all a fairy tale adaptation, despite that being its given subject heading. It is certainly strongly inspired by the fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and its central point about the dangers of obsessing over appearances, but it contains zero details or plot points from the fairytale, since having a wicked stepmother is hardly exclusive to the tale of Snow White. The central message of the book is not even really about beauty and the violent consequences of the single-minded pursuit of it. Instead, the story uses the symbolism of mirrors and absent or changed reflections to examine the deceptive nature of appearances and their importance to how we perceive ourselves and each other, especially in relation to race.
**SPOILER ALERT: reading farther may spoil the book**
The reason I say that this book is not an adaptation of Snow White is because a large number of the important fairy tale characters and plots are missing. As far as I can tell, there are no seven dwarves, certainly no princes, and no attempts on Snow’s life. The praise for Oyeyemi’s other works that appear on the back cover of this book imply that this should be a gothic, haunting tale. However, given the number of times that the wicked stepmother tries to outright murder Snow White in the original tale, including sending her out into the woods with a huntsman who has orders to cut out Snow’s heart, there is surprisingly little threat of violence from Boy, the stepmother. The only truly gruesome part of the story comes from the Rat Catcher and the awful descriptions of how he treats both the rats and Boy. Of course there are a few other disconcerting elements, visions in the mirrors, conversations with spiders and such, but nothing near the terrifying details of the original Snow White.
The only element of magic realism in the story, which is what helps it feel a little bit more like it is related to the fairy tale, is the mirrors. The suspiciously absent or altered reflections that the characters see of themselves or others cannot really be explained, since they could either be a result of a trick of the light, or the consequence of magic. I really like that aspect because it gives the story a bit more depth. Toward the end of the book, though, there is suddenly introduced the likelihood that an actual spell is at fault for Boy’s mother’s transformation into her father. Unfortunately, that particular plot point is actually not addressed or discussed in any sort of detail, despite it being a potentially vital key to our understanding of exactly how the mirrors really factor in to the perceived images of the three main women. It heavily implies that there is some sort of curse that afflicts the women of Boy’s family in regard to their reflections, since it occurs in three generations, but really is not given any depth or credence.
If this book had not been advertised as an adaptation of Snow White, I am not sure that I really would have been able to recognize it as such. I think that it was much more just inspired by the fairy tale, so that Oyeyemi uses the trope of the stepmother that banishes her stepdaughter and mirrors that sometimes tell the truth about appearances, to explore race relations in mid-twentieth century Massachusetts. I probably would have liked the book more without having been told that it is a fairy tale adaption, because then I would not have had specific expectations, namely that there would be more readily recognizable characters and plot elements. Even if the plot were twisted on its head and the characters did not react the same way to similar situations from the fairy tale, it still would have been more enjoyable as an adaptation, because that is what I love so much about them; the cleverness and ingenuity authors use to bring new life to an old tale. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate what Oyeyemi did with her story, I really like the elements that she did incorporate, but my expectations for a fairy tale adaptation were not met, which probably got in the way of me fully appreciating what happened in this book.
Managing expectations is something that is key to enjoying stories, especially when it comes to fairy tales and myths. Marketing books is very important of course, but it is equally important not to mislead readers, in my opinion. It is part of the reason why genres are so often discussed and “magic realism” was invented in the first place. In this case, I think that labeling Boy, Snow, Bird as a fairy tale adaptation does a disservice to the work. I am still intrigued enough by Oyeyemi’s ability to reimagine fairy tale elements in our “real” world, and thus will most likely read some of her other books as well, but now I will have much different expectations of her stories.
Oyeyemi, H. (2014). Boy, Snow, Bird. New York; Riverhead Books.