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Boy Snow Bird

July 24, 2016

A year or so ago I decided to try a book club, something that appeals to me but that I just can’t seem to keep going. Something about having to complete my reading within a given time frame never seems to work for me. But the few meetings I attended9781594633409 were really quite interesting, and the books we read were invariably of a calibre that suited me. One of those was a book called Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
After reading it and discussing with the group at the book club, I was certain that my sister, a professor of rhetoric and comp (plus literature and other disciplines that fall under the “English” rubric in education nowadays), would love it.

And so she did. In fact, she recently mentioned that she’d taught the book to her classes this year. Since she’d spent time studying and planning her discussions from the book, I asked her to write some thoughts down and share them here with you. Therefore, the following post about the Oyeyemi book is by my guest blogger, JaneE Hindman.

I’m not spoiling much by telling you that author Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) spins off from the traditional Snow White folktale in order to deliver its very modern story of race, beauty, deception, and identity. You’ll read at least that much of the story in the summaries from Goodreads,, or even the book cover itself. And once those details are revealed, it’s pretty obvious that Oyeyemi is referring to the fairy tale when she assigns the name “Snow” to the protagonist’s stepdaughter; the book’s title is the names of its three main characters in the order you meet them, Boy, Snow, and Bird. In another somewhat obvious move, Oyeyemi’s very first sentence initiates this novel’s frequent and often enigmatic references to mirrors: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy” (3). Clearly and from the outset, we see that, in the world of Boy, Snow, Bird, appearances are deceiving.

What is less obvious and what I definitely don’t want to spoil for you is your discovery of the myriad ways Oyeyemi reinvents Snow White, its plot line as well as its primary characters (mother, stepmother, daughter), symbol (the mirror), and theme (beauty, vanity, and their consequent competition among women). Part of the fun—not to mention the genius—of the novel is unraveling, paging back to review, grinning and nodding at, and sometimes being surprised by all the other ways Oyeyemi works the well-known tale. But perhaps I can enhance your experience without spoiling the surprise by providing just a little overview of the novel and then focusing your attention on some key questions.

The protagonist of Boy, Snow, Bird, eighteen year-old Boy, embodies the blonde beauty so many young women long for. Her pulchritude doesn’t save her from familial hell, however; motherless from birth, Boy is raised by her routinely abusive father. A rat catcher by profession, Boy’s father seems to despise just about everything about Boy, but most especially her beauty; when Boy’s boyfriend Charlie answers the ratcatcher’s question about whether Charlie finds his daughter pretty, he responds, “More than just pretty, sir. I think she’s beautiful” (125). After Charlie has said goodnight, Boy’s father forces her to say she’s ugly. Worse, he binds her to a chair and threatens to deface her by allowing one of his rats to bit her face repeatedly. Soon thereafter, Boy runs away from home for good. She touches down in Flax Hill, a small Massachusetts town populated with artisans who create luxury items of great beauty. Boy soon meets Arturo, a widower, and his six-year-old daughter Snow; shortly thereafter, Boy marries Arturo and becomes Snow’s stepmother.

In these events, of course, we encounter several elements of the traditional Snow White story: a widower father is left with a young beautiful daughter, Snow, whose beauty and innocence endear her to all. The young girl remains motherless until her father remarries his second beautiful wife. But soon after Boy and Arturo’s wedding—when Boy receives a gift from Clara, an “estranged” sister that neither Arturo nor his parents nor Snow has ever mentioned—the plot thickens, as they say. Eight months (and only 18 pages) later, Boy births a child, “and then there was Bird in my arms, safe and well and dark” (136). This is the point at which Oyeyemi clarifies just how and most especially why she has appropriated the Snow White folktale. Yes, stepmother Boy declares that “Snow is not the fairest of them all” (150), and yes she sends Snow away from home. But why does she do that? That is the question.

When I taught Boy, Snow, Bird in my Women’s Literature college class in spring 2016, my students insisted that—just like the evil stepmother in the original version of Snow White, not to mention Walt Disney’s version—Boy sends Snow away because she’s jealous of Snow’s innocence and beauty, of the attention Snow receives. But I disagree. I asked my students to reconsider Boy’s early relationship with Snow. Did she seem envious of Snow? I directed them to Boy’s claim that “what I felt for the girl wasn’t all that distinct from what I felt for her father” (114). When do those feelings change? When does Boy begin to think that “Snow is not so wonderful as everybody thinks she is”? (145) What’s different? We discussed several other questions as well, such as, What does Snow actually look like and why is she so treasured in her family? What specific aspects of her “beauty” do her father and especially her late mother and her living grandmothers treasure? How do the latter respond to Bird?

In light of those details, especially the reactions of the grandmothers, I asked my students—and ask you, too—What is Boy doing when she sends Snow away? How does Oyeyemi change the elements and motives in the well-known fairy tale? Why has she changed them in the ways that she has? What is she trying to tell us by making those changes? In other words, what is Oyeyemi’s primary purpose or message in using the Snow White tale in the ways that she does?

What family legacies is she defying, reversing even? And what about Boy’s role as a mother? What legacy of her own parenting is Boy reversing in the ways she chooses to raise her daughter Bird? What does she prioritize in the environment she creates for Bird? What about Olivia Whitman’s (Arturo’s mother) and Julia’s (Snow’s birth mother) roles as mothers? What does each of them prioritize in the environment they create for their children? And how does the story tie in to the history informing Black women’s role as mother not just to their own children but also to countless generations of white children? How is Boy’s choice informed by that history?

These are the questions I find fascinating and essential to consider as we make meaning from Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel. Read this book and then tell me what you think. I look forward to working through them together.


From → Loves, Uncategorized

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