Boy, Snow, Bird

A beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under spoiler tags below) to be too brief and too superficial, and it took away from the book's strengths.

Boy Novak is a girl with a smart mouth, a crazy-making beauty, and a motherless, grim childhood that sends her fleeing from her New York City home. She winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts, an idyllic town known for its legions of artisans, a plac

A beautiful book about ugly things. I really liked a lot about it, but I found the treatment of a particular issue near the ending (discussed under spoiler tags below) to be too brief and too superficial, and it took away from the book's strengths.Boy Novak is a girl with a smart mouth, a crazy-making beauty, and a motherless, grim childhood that sends her fleeing from her New York City home. She winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts, an idyllic town known for its legions of artisans, a place that values beauty and that trades in beautiful things. Its most idyllic and beautiful resident (y'know, the fairest of them all) is Snow Whitman, a dreamy princess of a little girl who eventually becomes Boy's stepdaughter. Boy never assumed that marrying into the Whitmans--flinty, upright, hard-nosed, and still haunted by the loss of Snow's gorgeous mother--would be easy, but she finds her family relationships growing more complicated with the birth of her dark-skinned daughter, Bird. It's 1953, and while race relations are treacherous even in a fairy tale town, the most central pain here is centered on, and passed down by, the same source that often centers and passes down the color of own's skin: family.

I really like how Helen Oyeyemi uses fairy tales in her work. There are no straight re-tellings or tedious modern day "updates"; instead, she breaks a tale apart and uses some of the shiniest pieces in a mosaic that draws attention to the narrative patterns that become literal forces in our lives. In Mr. Fox, she kept rearranging elements of the Bluebeard story to examine the consequences of how we tell stories about violence against women, and here in Boy, Snow, Bird, she's looking at how race and identity and selfhood are invented and interpreted, all by fracturing the familiar Snow White mythos of beauty and purity and, quite interestingly, motherhood.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about passing, and overlaying a magical-realist fairy tale of deceitful mirrors and doubles makes perfect sense. W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness ("this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity") gets to the heart of what kind of work and what kind of pain is involved in passing, and the mirrors--literal and metaphorical--at work within the world of BSB are not neutral, passive objects. This story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, but the work being done here about identity is still severely relevant, even if contemporary racism doesn't always take the same form as it did then. While the principal character in this story is white Boy, this isn't a white person's white-savior story in which racism is the backdrop for the story of a white person's coming of age. There is not enough vomit in the world to express my reaction to seeing The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird and similar books being recommended as better stories about racism than this one; Ron Charles's Washington Post review expresses more elegantly how I feel about this: "This isn't one more earnest novel to reward white liberals for their enlightenment. (Insert your favorite bookclub title here.) Boy, Snow, Bird wants to draw us into the dark woods of America's racial consciousness, where fantasies of purity and contamination still lurk." Yep. Oyeyemi brings into multiple points of view as to what is gained and what is lost by those who choose to pass and those who don't, and even if Boy and whiteness are at the heart of the story, Oyeyemi continually complicates Boy's role there.

The writing is magnetic--I'd point to the book's opening sentence and the opening paragraph as good representatives of Oyeyemi's style--and I was

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engaged by both Boy's and Bird's sections. I also loved the letters exchanged by Bird and Snow, and while I wished for a section narrated by Snow, I think her voice still came through, and the fact that it was filtered by other character's experiences of her was part of the POINT.

However, there was an aspect to this book that I found problematic, and that I don't know how to digest, primarily because it occurs in the final pages of the book. (view spoiler) [Boy's journalist friend Mia goes searching for the truth about Boy's long absent mother and in doing so uncovers evidence for a story that she wants to write: the story of Boy's abusive father, Frank Novak "the rat catcher," a figure who looms menacingly throughout the book. Frank Novak had been born Frances Novak; an assertive academic and a radical lesbian, Frances was raped by an acquaintance, and as a result, Boy was born and Frances's identity was overtaken by the villainous Frank, her new, cruel self-image in the mirror. Mia gave Frank an opportunity to tell Boy this information herself, but now Mia outs him to Boy herself--and plans to publish this story. As Mia puts it, "I want to describe what someone goes through when they refuse to be a mother, or when they realize they just can't do it." Mia has her own story in relation to this theme, as does Boy and as do other characters, but Mia plans to write about Frank and Frances.There were three things about this that made me uncomfortable.

1) I read this book twice, the first time in the days after the publication of that Grantland story in which an investigative journalist outs and threatens to out a trans woman, and she commits suicide, and so I recoiled really, really violently from the idea of a journalist outing someone in the name of "story" and "truth." I mean, I understand, I don't need to morally approve of everything that happens in a book, but as this happens in the final pages of the book, there's no multifaceted treatment of this, nor is there indication of the consequences of this.

2) Frank's gender identity is described by Boy as a spell that needs to be broken. I was uncomfortable with this, because even if passing is the focus of the book, racial and gender passing are two different concepts with different implications, and jumping to the conclusion that Frances needed to be rescued from Frank, without considering that Frank could be who Frances wanted to be, kind of alarmed me. In pretty generalized terms, my understanding of racial passing is that it focuses on a person's means of assuming social mobility and social power, whereas gender passing involves aligning one's public identity and one's gender identity. I'd interpret the book as suggesting that Frank's gender passing IS about how he related/relates to social structures (naming his child Boy and abusing her in situations where her womanhood is most evident also suggest this) and may not have to do with how he felt about his own gender, BUT Frank's voice throughout the story is filtered secondhand, and so it was difficult for me to interpret his personal identity.

3) I want to be careful not to conflate gender passing in the context of this book with the identities of trans people, but as the only explicit example of someone engaged in gender passing, it troubled me that Frank's character--violent, abusive, predatory, mentally ill, identifies as a man as a result of severe trauma--coheres with a lot of negative stereotypes & representations of trans people. When compared to the book's richness and depth in how various characters related to racial passing, the weakness and superficial treatment of one surprise! example of gender passing at the end of the book stood out as unfortunate.

The book ends with Boy, her daughters, and Mia leaving to go to NYC and confront Frank, so there is no resolution on this front, but as Boy's relationship to her daughters (and Snow and Bird's relationships to one another) drove the book for me, I didn't mind the lack of Frank-related resolution per se. I don't think it served the book very well, however. (hide spoiler)]

FTC Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

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