Read Harder #2: A Fairy Tale Retold

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Onwards and upwards to the second Read Harder challenge: the retelling of a classic story! For this challenge  I chose Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. 

I’m a sucker for anything myth or legend. The Monomyth is probably my favourite literary tool/device/tidbit of all time. As a kid, I devoured a lot of Donna Jo Napoli’s reimaginings of princesses and curses, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods just disappeared in a heartbeat. I also strongly recommend for anyone who wants a dose of the original Greek myths in all their despicable glory to check out Edith Hamilton‘s versions. She’s usually used as a class text, but you can probably find multiple copies at even your localist of local libraries (I certainly did).
But I digress — Helen Oyeyemi is a mythical genius! She knows how to tug on all the right strings without pulling too hard. The occasional throw to Rumpelstiltskin or the vaguest mention of mice at midnight just open the flood gates wide and let all that ancient, beautiful story right out. I had heard marvelous things about her novel Mr. Fox (sadly that book has been sitting on my “to read” list for about two years and hasn’t moved an inch) but I got to Boy, Snow, Bird first.
Her latest novel is a mix of fairy tales, myths, and legends from different cultures smooshed together in the context of 1950s to 1970s American race relations. I actually refuse to divulge too much of the plot because she’s got a really, really great plot twist in there–I absolutely did not see it coming, and I can predict a lot. 
What really charmed me with this particular novel, however, is that Oyeyemi puts some real thought into the Evil Stepmother trope. Probably one of the most classic of all tales is the appearance of the Evil Stepmother who just can’t seem to be anything other than mean to the noble protagonist for some reason. That reason is usually not explored. ‘She is evil just because’ is the typical explanation and I have to say I never considered how much that bothered me until now. The novel begins with a young woman named Boy Novak (fantastic, am I right?) who runs away and marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a daughter named Snow. You can see where this is going… It appears that her novel is intended to be a retelling of the story of Snow White but it is far, far more complicated than that.
Which begs the question, what is it about Snow that the Evil Stepmother just can’t abide? I am currently at page 223, so I can’t tell you (and won’t tell you even when I know), but what I love about Oyeyemi’s characters so far is that none of them are simple and straightforward the way fairy tales intend you to believe. Nothing is good nor evil in this book and because it is told in the first person perspective you don’t get to hear everyone’s thoughts. Best of all, the protagonist doesn’t give everything away either. There are many moments when I caught myself thinking, ‘What gives? Why did she say that?’ And the lack of explanation makes it so much better.
I fell hard for this book somewhere around 50 pages in and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes fresh perspective stories but also loves the classics.