If vanity could kill, this book would be murder. Oyeyemi’s tale is winding; the plot twists and turns in every direction. The characters are full of evil and charm. There is a specific darkness to the retelling of this Snow White tale that allows certain themes to shine so brightly. In a subtle and disorienting manner, a way I could only describe as magical disenchantment, Oyeyemi addresses themes of vanity, gender, parenting, race, and education.
Boy is abused by her terrible father, the rat catcher, who would “accidentally” let pans fall on her or worse, seduce her with food only to later tie her to a chair and let the blind rats chew at her face. Having had enough, Boy runs away, runs to the station, and buys any ticket that is far away enough. She lives in a boarding house but is shunned slightly for not having any skills or talents.
She has a gentleman caller, Charlie, her true love, write to her. But it is Arturo Whitman who ultimately gains her hand in marriage. Whitman has a little girl Snow, whose beauty enchants everyone, even Boy. Boy loves Snow and if only she had let herself, would be the mother she always wanted and never had. Snow loves Boy and welcomes the new baby; in fact, she chooses the name: “Bird for a boy and Bird for a girl.”
Bird is born and immediately Boy gets accused of cheating on her husband. Bird is a dark skinned baby and it is revealed that Arturo comes from a lineage of black history, except that he and his sister Vivian were able to pass off as white, unlike his eldest sister, Clara, who was banished to Biloxi. You’d assume that Bird would be cast away too, but she isn’t. Boy sends Snow to live with her (white supremacist) grandparents: “Snow is not the fairest of them all. And the sooner she and all the rest of them understand that, the better.” Still, Boy snuck in Snow’s biological mother’s music tapes so she wouldn’t feel too lonely.
Snow is miserable and misses her sister and their relationship. She despises
her grandparents and walks about with an elegant sense of racial enlightenment: not too blind, not too blindsided. Bird has a harder time–Boy never nurtures or externalizes her immense love for Bird–and in secret, writes to her sister through her boyfriend (the only Asian boy in town). She asks Snow about herself, and in a post script she writes “Do you understand how beautiful you are? Does anyone ever tell you, or does everyone assume that you already know? I’m sorry I may have made it sound like I’m jealous, and naturally I am,” and in a post post script she writes “I’d really appreciate it if you could skip any false modesty in your reply. If you reply. Hope you do.” Bird is this precious yet bitter young girl entering womanhood and doesn’t quite fit in for her looks and her frankness. In letters, she corresponds with Snow, exchanging fairy tales and intimate stories of their lives—Oyeyemi writes beautifully on what it’s like to have a sister.
In the end, the rat catcher comes back to hunt Bird, hearing that his daughter had had a child. After pulling bird down a tree and pushing a syringe dangerously close to her hip, he takes her to a diner and tries to confess something that only Aunt Mia, Boy’s best friend and aspiring news reporter, is able to reveal. Haunted by his visit, Boy tries to understand how the rat catcher was able to find her. Having had fallen out with Mia, Boy finally confronts her and only then did Mia tell Boy that she had given him the address. Boy is stunned and stupefied but not as much as us, when we find out that the rat catcher all along was her mother.
Mia found out about Frank Novak’s history and realized that there was no such person, it was the dirty phoenix of Frances’ ashes. Frances was a political and maverick lesbian studying at Barnard, happily enchanting all those around her. Unfortunately, a man wanted to correct her; he thought her lesbianism was symptomatic of the fact that she hadn’t yet found the man who was man enough for her, man enough to rape her and impregnate her. Frances dropped out and disappeared. She worked odd jobs, slowly but definitively transforming into Frank. He tortured Boy because he wanted to hurt her before anyone else could. Boy hurt Snow and Bird so no one else could. She taught the world to
Oyeyemi thrills us with an adventure story and weaves in fairytales within fairy tales. Her characters are charming and complex but each has some darkness. We encounter the darkness of trauma and abuse, but also the peaceful complacency of security. Oyeyemi doesn’t deny the twisted, corrupt decisions we have to make in this twisted, corrupt world. Nevertheless, she guides us through stories within stories, offering different characters a chance to narrate (Boy, Bird, and Snow), giving each a voice that develops the characters far more deeply and authentically than an omniscient narrator. This beautiful creation of magical disenchantment is incredibly engaging and will have you turning pages. Boy, Snow, Bird, is a worthy, complex, and thrilling story you could easily finish in a day or two, but will it will stay with you forever.