Friday, August 1, 2014

Historical Fiction: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I need more minority writers in my life, so I picked up Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after it popped up in my recommendations on Goodreads. I was also interested in a storyline that includes elements from the story of Snow White that many of us are so familiar with, but reimagined for 1950s-1960s America.

The Situation: Boy Novak has managed to escape her abusive father Frank in New York City, and has made a modest life for herself in the small community of Flax Hill. She has friends in the boarding house where she is staying, a job at a local bookstore, and she even garnered the interest of a local widow who already has a daughter of his own named Snow. After a slightly awkward meeting with her fiance's mother and sister, as well as the mother of his late wife, Boy and Arturo get married and are soon expecting a child of their own.

The Problem: Although Boy was always slightly wary of her step-daughter Snow from the beginning, her feelings darken incredibly after the birth of her own daughter, Bird. Snow never actually does anything wrong, and seems to love and and adore Bird and treats her like her little sister. But apart from Arturo and Boy, she is the only one who seems to welcome Bird into the family. When Bird is born, it is obvious she is black. Boy is white, and had thought she had married a white man. Turns out Arturo and his family had been "passing" (when light-skinned black people successfully pretend to be white) for years. Also, his wife Julia was black, but she and her mother Agnes were also able to pass, and did so, which is why Arturo's family loved her so much, and also doted endlessly on Snow, who was not only able to pass like the rest of her family, but was also just incredibly beautiful. Boy is encouraged to send Bird away to Arturo's other sister Clara, who was not able to pass and therefore grew up separated from the rest of her family. But instead of sending Bird away, Boy sends Snow away, and finds herself becoming the evil stepmother she never thought she would be. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction book that has elements of a fairy tale, pulling mostly from the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Snow's last name is even Whitman). It is set in 1950s-1960s America, so Oyeyemi uses the country's racially tense history as the backdrop for a story involving an evil stepmother, and a little girl whose beauty is obvious to everyone so she receives incredible amounts of attention because of it. Oyeyemi also gives the use and idea of mirrors a prominent place in the story. Boy can't seem to get enough of her own reflection, which troubles her slightly, while Bird's reflection sometimes doesn't show up at all. But while Oyeyemi has the characters deal with physical mirrors, her characters also become mirrors themselves as they feel and believe certain things when they look, and sometimes refuse to look, at each other. Something about Snow makes Boy uncomfortable, so she sends her away. And Arturo's family is troubled by Bird's appearance, so a few of his family member's try to ignore her completely. Ultimately, the way people feel when looking at someone else says something about the observer, not the object. And in a racially tense country these reflections can be very telling indeed.

My Verdict: There is quite a bit going on in this book, and the description makes it sound incredibly interesting, which is why I picked it up. Not only does it deal with the subject of "passing," but it is formed like a fairy tale and has parts where suspension of disbelief is necessary. Unfortunately, the description of the book makes it sound much more interesting and compelling than it actually is. The parts of the book that dealt with passing, and the parts that were narrated by Bird were well done and engaging. But everything else was pretty disappointing. And while there are elements of the fairy tale in it, the theme isn't quite followed all of the way through, and often felt forced. And this was another one of those endings where it seemed like the author had painted herself into a corner and just needed a way out. What is even worse is that the way out that she chose felt like Oyeyemi was pandering to her audience, while trying to weakly hang on to the fairy tale theme. Ultimately, there were parts of this book that I enjoyed, but overall it left me disappointed.

Favorite Moment: When Bird is able to mimic the voice of her Gee-Ma Julia and gain vital information out of her Grandma Olivia.

Favorite Character: Bird is easily my favorite character. She is a young girl attempting to learn more about her racially confused and unsettled family. And even though the adults attempt to put her off and avoid the topic, she manages to find answers in her own way.

Favorite Quote: "School is one long illness with symptoms that switch every five minutes so you think it's getting better or worse. But really it's the same thing for years and years." - Bird on middle school and high school. 

Recommended Reading: If you want to read a historical fiction book set in 20th century America, I recommend The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. The book follows three black woman and chronicles their long friendship together from their teen years into adulthood.

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