Snow White and the Trickster: Race and Genre in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird

By Lau, Kimberly J. | Western Folklore, Summer/Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Snow White and the Trickster: Race and Genre in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird


Lau, Kimberly J., Western Folklore


To be enchanted is to be struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday.

Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of Snow White enfolded in a novel of enchantments and African folk forms. Full of provocative wonders born as much of magic as of power and politics, Oyeyemi's fantastically real tale calls forth the haunting specters of historical and cultural violence that disturb the everyday and shake loose the extraordinary lurking in the familiar. Perhaps ironically, it is Oyeyemi's deconstmction of the fairy tale that sets its magic free and encourages enchantment's proliferation. Although all retellings and adaptations tend toward deconstmction, the deconstmction at work in Boy, Snow, Bird is of a more fundamental nature: instead of simply allowing her retelling to do the deconstmctive work, Oyeyemi literally deconstmcts the fairy tale into its constituent parts, its dominant tropes, without reworking them into a singular narrative. Gathered together in ways that resonate with the structures and conventions of African folktales and their storytelling performances, Snow White 's tropes open into nuanced and multilayered social, historical, and literary critiques and inspire the novel's most unsettling moments of enchantment.

Boy, Snow, Bird is structured in three parts and revolves around the imbricated lives of the eponymous female characters-Boy, Snow, and Bird-connected through marriage and birth. Spanning two decades, the novel's first and third parts are narrated by Boy; the second is narrated by her teen-aged daughter, Bird, and, through an epistolary exchange, by Snow, Boy's 20-something stepdaughter and Bird's stepsister. Part I opens in the 1940s with Boy's story of escape, around the age of 20, from her abusive father; fleeing the man she calls the Ratcatcher, she settles in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where she meets and marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower and the father of Snow, a beautiful sevenyear-old beloved by her extended families (the Whitmans and the Millers) and, indeed, the entire town. Initially, Boy and Snow share what Boy describes as a profoundly meaningful relationship, claiming "maybe it's the thief in me, but I think this girl is mine, and that 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).

Not surprisingly, things change when Bird is born. Bird's arrival is a disruptive force in Boy and Snow's relationship as well as in the extended Whitman family, the town, and the novel, because she is born with undeniably African American features and coloring. As such, she exposes what the extended Whitman and Miller families have been hiding, the passing for which Snow is so deeply cherished. Bird's birth also brings to the fore the story of Clara Whitman, Arturo's sister, who was sent away as a child to be raised by an aunt because she was too dark-skinned to pass; Clara even goes so far as to suggest that Boy send Bird to her to raise, but Boy chooses to send Snow away instead.

In the second part of the novel, racial consciousness and racial prejudice circulate through Bird's account of her everyday life, her relationship with Louis Chen (and his family's racialization in the context of the Korean and Vietnam wars), and her epistolary exchange with Snow, a relationship Boy has sought to deny for reasons that she herself cannot fully explain or understand.1 In the final part of the novel, the entire family-not only Snow but also Clara and her African American husband, John-is reunited at Thanksgiving, and the dinner scene again calls attention to the complexities of racial formation, racial identity, and the ethics and violence of passing. Later, after Boy has resolved and righted her history and relationship with Snow, the three women and Boy's closest friend, Mia, head off to New York in an effort to disenchant the Ratcatcher, who-they have learned-is actually Boy's birth mother (a woman who chose to become a man when her mirror reflection appeared to her as such). …

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