Of all the female archetypes in need of feminist reclamation, the wicked stepmother probably has the fewest defenders. And for good reason! An adult who spends a whole lot of her life being jealous of a child doesn't exactly engender sympathy in readers. In her new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, $27.95), Helen Oyeyemi contributes a doozy of an unsympathetic wicked stepmother to the tradition. Here's Boy Novak, a young woman with a troubled past, first laying eyes on Snow, the young daughter of the wealthy man Boy hopes to make her husband:
I watched the women watching Snow. Their reverence was over the top. Sure, she was an extraordinary-looking kid. A medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolor tapestry, sure, sure, but... they'd had a while to get used to her, and acting like that every time they laid eyes on her seemed to me like the fastest way to build an insufferable brat.
It could be the start of a memorable and delicious feud, except one of the participants, remember, is a 6-year-old girl. (As Boy judges Snow with the harshness adults usually reserve for rivals, Snow peppers her stepmother-to-be with questions: "Do you like cookies? Do you like cold water? Do you like elephants? How do you spell 'genius'? Can you jump rope? How are ya today? What does 'genius' mean?") Soon enough, Boy has insinuated her way into the family, and she gives birth to a daughter of her own, named Bird. This family isn't big enough for the four of them.
In case the noun-y, abnormal proper names and the archetypal trappings don't clue you in, Boy, Snow, Bird is a riff on "Snow White." But before you cast it off with the countless fairy-tale retellings that are choking popular culture at the moment, you should know that it's not a literal reframing of the story. While all three of the title characters have interesting relationships to mirrors—"Nobody ever warned me about mirrors," the book opens—there's no simplistic sorcery or amusing dwarves to dumb things down.
At the same time, Boy, Snow, Bird is a fascinating contribution to the literature of passing. Published primarily in America in the beginning of the last century (and exemplified perhaps most famously in Nella Larsen's novel Passing), novels about light-skinned black people who pass as white people were practically their own genre at one time. Boy's husband, Arturo Whitman, is from a family of very light-skinned black people who pass as white, and Bird is born obviously black.
The book takes place in New England in the 1950s and '60s, and Oyeyemi folds together the fairy tale and passing narratives into one story by directly relating the way that the "genteel" North avoids matters of race. The whole region seems to be under the spell of an evil enchantment: New Englanders fastidiously try to ignore matters of race until they can't avoid it anymore. At that point, once the placid spell is broken, they tend to lash out with all the rage and bigotry you expect from a Mississippi Klansman.
Boy, Snow, Bird could have benefited from a fairy tale's propensity toward economical storytelling—even at a fairly restrained 308 pages, it's at least 50 pages too long—but as you near the end of the book, the pages turn with the increasing speed and certainty of an avalanche. Oyeyemi pulls the three women in the story together and directs them to the origins of their conflict. Every wicked stepmother is someone's child, she says, and while they may not be worthy of our sympathy, they still deserve some understanding.