Fairest of them All: Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy Novak is a character name straight from the realistic beatnik era approaching the people in the novel Boy, Snow, Bird. With just a name, Helen Oyeyemi brings to mind the Hollywood actress, Kim Novak- and along with her many of the white feminine ideals of the dawning, North American, twentieth-century middle-class. At this time, civil rights and feminism intertwined to forge a movement of strong voices being immediately dismissed because of skin color and the power and full agency of white supremacy. Boy’s white beauty, reflected in the mirrors she obsesses over, represents the self-obsession whiteness uses to assimilate or destroy all things other than itself. Some humans are called on to challenge the ideals of social programming. And the character Boy Novak very much rises to the occasion.

            The novel, for anyone not familiar, is (spoiler ALERT!!) a re-telling of Snow White seen through the lens of a 1950’s Civil Rights Era period piece; stocked with the trimmings of a dominant white lead character, a ghost-white young girl named Snow, an upper-middle-class family trying to fit into the American Dream, and the signs of all-too casual racism and systemic “othering.” Characters like Sidonie, with her hair-dresser mother and egalitarian household, though rich with culture and vibrant personalities, were not the point of this book. But with all things considered this is not the average tale told by the white, male minds of twenty-first century popular fiction. Helen Oyeyemi is not only a woman, but she is a fierce Nigerian woman, with a way of taking this surface story of fairy tales and whiteness and subverting it to a modern social commentary. on the rights or wrongs in regards to autonomy and choice, self-love and the duality of our own self perceptions vs those of the social world around us, and a moral lesson about roots, family, motherhood, and acceptance or pride in where you come from.

As a transwoman, there are several places I feel like the story is discussing similar experiences to my own. I am all too familiar with one of the major concepts of the novel: passing. And for anyone not familiar with the term, passing refers to one concept (with many connotations): being perceived the way one is presenting…even if that presentation is not what it seems. As trans people, we convince ourselves that we have to pass as the gender we identify with, bringing with it the idea that others could take that as artificiality…or worse, lies. And we must, like the Whitmans, be subject to the self-deprecation of subverting our hard-wired biology to remain safely tucked into the culture we identify with but were not born into. Like many trans people may want to, Boy steals the chance to run away; leaving a violent past behind her, as she seeks a new life in a place where she feels she might belong. But more importantly, a place that she can control. However, a large part of this novel is defining what cannot be counted on. So, her connection with Snow, and marriage to Arturo and acceptance into the Whitman family brings an unexpected element of chaos to her attempt at cohesion with the rules of society: when their first mutual child, Bird, is born a beautiful, bouncing, baby girl with dark skin.  

This story also deals with the very modern issue of child abandonment. Snow is revealed to be a passing black child, the Whitmans a passing black family, and Boy suddenly indifferent to the illusion that Snow is a siren of light and magnificence, as is witnessed by all whom behold her. As the typical wicked step-mother may be inclined, there is a jealousy moment that leads to the beautiful child with the skin as white as snow being sent away for a week that quickly becomes thirteen years. Of the many meandering plot points, this one is not without significance. For it’s the lack of interaction between these characters that drives them forward, not the intensive way in which characters usually interact. We learn that Bird also has an odd fixation with mirrors, and that like her mother she also sees things change in the face of them (or doesn’t see things at all). This is a metaphor for disappearing children everywhere, literally or emotionally forgotten. In this way it’s also a means of reinforcing the erasure of blackness from white American culture in the CRE. And it’s also a warning from Oyeyemi: that there will be holes, things here one minute then gone the next, that all of her tale is a magic trick and things may not be how they appear at a glance. As Boy puts it, “There is no Snow, but only the work of smoke and mirrors” (p #). And in that theoretical framework all of her characters represent those parts of us that have been hurt and disillusioned by feeling outcast. Within my trans experience, this is a noteworthy analogy of life, sadly, whether from our own self-doubts, or the doubts imposed upon us by the society in which we live.

This experimental novel is written in three parts, from three different perspectives, but only using two characters. First, we see Boy and build what could be a wicked step-mother paradigm into flesh and blood. The second is from a teenage perspective, in the form of Bird’s meanderings into her own identity. And finally, we touch back to Boy for a very different feeling at the close of this novel. At first glance, one might see a broken book; pieces that are disjointed that perhaps leave some of us scratching our heads. But the fairy tale that we expected is not the journey that we take in this book. This story is representing truth, not the shallow trappings of fantasy re-telling. At its core Boy, Bird, Snow is about a woman, who becomes a mother, and the children affected by the lives they were born to be touched by. As Bird finds herself disappearing in mirrors throughout, it becomes easier to understand the isolation of racism as well as womanhood. With the inclusion of various types of women (black and white women, strong and passive women, transgender or cross-dressing women), Oyeyemi shows us all those who hide in the open, unseen by the dominant gaze, and who stand to be lost in the mirror. Boy, Snow, Bird was an experiment perhaps in allowing a book to write itself, Oyeyemi allowing her band of curious women to build a new form of dramatic thought. One where, just maybe, the fairest of them all are the people who are most accepting.


8 thoughts on “Fairest of them All: Boy, Snow, Bird

  1. Beautifully written, I have never read the novel myself but based upon your revitalization of the tale through your vision..makes me want to pick it up. It seems as if it touches all aspects of development from a perspective in which those whom have never encountered identification/race/ or gender complications may finally see a light. Very very good read from you!

  2. Your point on child abandonment made my think. I never really considered that angle when reading the book. It is an important part of Snow’s character.

  3. Thanks Eric. Yes I felt like the children, and their ability to thrive even through being forgotten, pushed aside, or held under tight wraps was a poignant part of the character development.

  4. I really enjoyed reading your take on Boy, Snow, Bird. I never thought about the connection to Kim Novak. I was really intrigued by the idea of the mirrors representing ‘disappearing children’. I had never thought of the mirrors in that way, and it’s given me something to ponder about when I reread the novel. Thanks for the really exciting read!

  5. This was a very insightful take! I think what also made the novel a little hard to read was the fact that despite having three parts, we can only read them from the perspectives of Boy and Bird. It kind of felt like Snow’s perspective wasn’t too important and that there were some parts of Bird’s perspective that could’ve been fleshed out more concerning her parent. But this also raises the question of whether or not enduring child abuse can cause a person to unintentionally inflict abuse onto their child. Either way, I did enjoy reading this!

  6. Thanks!!! I agree. It’s a strange novel when as readers we identify the most vital characters and yet… that’s not who we hear from lol. I believe that if we had time to re read, the story of Bird would come to life THROUGH the people telling it. Peace. Break legs on all your blogs.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and analysis of this novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the examination of race, relationships, and women (not as stereotypes). I found the third part alarming though because of the suggestion of the ability to change Frank. Although being cisgender myself I clearly don’t have a firsthand experience, so in reading your analysis it has certainly broadened my perspective and I’m very appreciative of that!

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