Title: Boy, Snow, Bird
Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Pub Date: February 27, 2014
Synopsis: BOY Novak turns twenty and decides to try for a brand-new life. Flax Hill, Massachusetts, isn’t exactly a welcoming town, but it does have the virtue of being the last stop on the bus route she took from New York. Flax Hill is also the hometown of Arturo Whitman – craftsman, widower, and father of Snow. SNOW is mild-mannered, radiant and deeply cherished – exactly the sort of little girl Boy never was, and Boy is utterly beguiled by her. If Snow displays a certain inscrutability at times, that’s simply a characteristic she shares with her father, harmless until Boy gives birth to Snow’s sister, Bird. When BIRD is born Boy is forced to re-evaluate the image Arturo’s family have presented to her, and Boy, Snow and Bird are broken apart.
“I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, but what I mean to say is that a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen.” (page 237-8)
I have mixed feelings about Boy, Snow, Bird. But I do have to say that my opinion sways heavily toward the positive! I’ve never read anything by Oyeyemi before, though Mr Fox has been on my book depository wishlist for a while now, and I found her writing style to mesh really well with my tastes. That’s a little bit of a weird thing to say, and I realize that. I’ll say it in a different way that might be more relatable: this book definitely had the potential to become one of my favorites. I really thought that’s where it was heading – Oyeyemi really knows how to write.
Boy, Snow, Bird is, among other things, a historical narrative that deeply explores race, discrimination, and passing. These elements also help solidify the book’s connections to the Snow White fairy tale. The beginning of the book is narrated by a blonde white woman named Boy, so these elements of the plot are introduced with a light emphasis through her, but they become a huge focus later on. I thought this was an interesting way to draw in the common reader, who may not have picked up this book if it were marketed differently.
Through Boy, the reader develops empathy and then when her life gets tangled in racial discourse, there’s more outrage than would have been there with a POC narrator. It’s a difficult circumstance to describe without giving too much away.
But there’s something deeply unsettling about an average white woman who is pulled into the world of ‘passing’ culture and looked down upon for her association with it. If there’s anything that makes white people upset, it’s having their privilege threatened, and Boy, Snow, Bird seems to suggest that no one is safe from this threat, not even a girl like Boy, who works very hard to keep her head down and stay out of the spotlight.
I love the dialogue that this novel opens up. I wish I had heard more about it during its time of release, because it really does encourage the critical consideration of racism and its implications. Another cool thing that you’ll see if you read this book, is an ambiguous integration of the Snow White storyline. The book spans two generations, and I think there’s a solid argument either way for which character is the abusive wicked stepmother character. But the truth I believe in is somewhere in between – there’s a sad cycle between being the victim of abuse in childhood and being abusive later in life.
The ending is what threw me off more than anything else. And I’m not going to say much (to respect the people who have not yet read this book) besides that the end struck me as uncharacteristically transphobic. I realize that the novel takes place in the past, but that’s still no excuse for casual transphobia and gender invalidation.
Sentimental Progressivism is a trap that we need to work very hard not to fall into, and that’s why I can’t get behind the ending. BUT as you can see, there are multiple issues to debate within this book and its contexts, which in itself is enough reason to read it. Boy, Snow, Bird doesn’t necessarily agree with the ideologies that are present in its pages. It examines them closely and in the case of this reader, prompted a careful consideration of the morality behind those ideologies.
About the Author: (from goodreads)
Helen Oyeyemi is a British novelist and playwright. She was born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in London. She wrote her widely acclaimed first novel, The Icarus Girl, before her nineteenth birthday; she graduated from Cambridge University in 2006, where she studied social and political sciences. In 2013 she was included in the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list.