“Once upon a time” has become so overused in pop culture, it’s almost lost its power to enchant.
From the $1 billion-grossing, Oscar-winning “Frozen” to, um, somewhat less successful efforts – “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” spawned a sequel? Really? – fairy tales have been retold, referenced, recycled, fractured, and reproduced until they're barely recognizable.
And right now, Snow White is, if not the fairest, at least the most ubiquitous of them all – temporarily elbowing aside a certain shoe-losing blonde. Snow currently battles evil on a weekly basis on ABC with a host of other Disney characters, in “Once Upon a Time.” In addition to Ginnifer Goodwin’s valiant archer, she’s been played by everyone from Kristen Stewart to Betty Boop. She’s been transported to Renaissance Italy by “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire and inspired the fabulously titled 2013 German mystery, “Snow White Must Die.” And her stepmother boasts a cast list that could sate even her Vain Imperiousness: Oscar winners Charlize Theron, Sigourney Weaver, and Julia Roberts all have gazed, dissatisfied, into that magic mirror.
Then along comes a fairy-tale retelling like Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi and upends the whole thing. Apple, dwarves, glass coffin – she tosses them all out and replaces them with an unsettling book that casts a spell without ever using those four magic words.
The Nigerian-born Oyeyemi’s first novel, “Icarus Girl,” was published in 2005 while she was still in college at Cambridge. Oyeyemi has delved into folk and fairy tales with each of her novels since, including 2011’s “Mr. Fox.”
As with her fairy tale counterpart, Boy Novak is fond of her own reflection.“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy,” says Boy, who would gaze into them, kissing her reflection or setting two mirrors opposite one another to create an endless series of reflections.
Her daughter and stepdaughter have the opposite problem: Sometimes their reflection doesn’t show up at all.
All three women learn the ways that mirrors can lie during the course of the story, most of which is set in the 1950s in a fictional Massachusetts town called Flax Hill. The novel hinges on several plot revelations, which I am not going to spoil. This is one book where I would recommend you not read anything in advance, even the back cover: Just go buy it.
Boy comes to Flax Hill as a young woman, fleeing her abusive parent, Frank, a rat catcher in New York. After several fits and starts, she gets a job at the local bookstore, which is presided over by Alecto Fletcher, who serves as the novel's resident crone. Their most steadfast clients are three African-American teens who keep skipping school to read all day.
One day, walking down the road, Boy sees a house that looks like it has stepped out of a fairy tale. “One of the bigger houses had brambles growing up the front of it in snakelike vines. The smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies aside, it looked like a house you could start fanciful rumors about: ‘Well, a princess has been asleep there for hundreds of years ...’ and so on. The front door was open, and the porch light was on, and a little girl came around the side of the house, singing loudly. I couldn’t see her face properly – it was obscured by clouds of dark hair with big red flowers plaited into them – but she had a large cookie in each hand and more in the pockets of her dress, and I wanted to go in at the door behind her, sit down at the old piano I could see in the living room while she stood on tiptoes to retrieve the glass of milk set on top of it,” Boy recounts.
The “swan maiden” is Snow Whitman, who has the dark hair, red lips and white skin of her namesake. Her dead mother, an opera singer, chose her name after making lists of hundreds of them.“The multitude of names didn’t seem like indecision – Julia Whitman was trying to summon up a troop of fairy godmothers. Somewhere in among the names of all those mermaids, warriors, saints, goddesses, queens, scientists, and poets I could see a woman trying to cover all the bases, searching for things her daughter would need in order to make friends with life,” Boy writes.
Boy ends up getting her wish about moving into the house with brambles. She marries Arturo Whitman, Snow’s dad, and his daughter loves the idea of having a young, beautiful stepmother. And, until an event that makes Boy distrust Snow’s startling beauty, Boy wanted to be Snow’s mother perhaps more than Arturo’s wife.
Instead of an engagement ring, Arturo makes Boy a bracelet in the form of a coiled, white-gold snake. When he gives her the present, Boy doesn’t even want to pick it up.
“I mean, could that scream ‘wicked stepmother’ any louder?” her friend Mia asks.
“It’s okay, it’s fine. It only looks like that. That’s not how it really is,” Mia reassures her.
Despite Boy’s good intentions, after her own daughter, Bird, is born she exiles Snow – sending her away to live with her aunt. This reminded me most of the Biblical Sarah, sending away Hagar and Ishmael to clear the way for her own child, Isaac, but banished children have been a staple over everything from “Hansel & Gretel” to “The Wild Swans.”
Oyeyemi plays with many fairy tales during the course of the novel, from mentions of Rapunzel to Christina Rossetti's poem “Goblin Market” to African-American fables about Brer Anansi and La Belle Capuchine. Perhaps the most priceless exchange comes when Bird asks Arturo if Cinderella is a true story.
“Not the fairy godmother stuff and her dress turning back to rags at midnight – I know that’s true. But Cinderella just sweeping up all those ashes every day and never putting them into her stepmother’s food or anything – is that true?”
As in tradition for fairy tales, the fathers are hapless and the mothers are missing: Boy’s father refused to tell her anything about her mother and Snow’s mother died. The secrets surrounding those women, of course, hold the key to bringing home the princess.One plot weakness that is never adequately explained is why Arturo would ever agree to send away his beloved oldest girl. But then, Hansel’s and Gretel’s dad didn’t do a bang-up job of protecting them, either.
Oyeyemi has created a riveting story about race and women’s identities in the 20th century. By the end, readers will be longing for "Boy, Snow, and Bird" to live happily ever after.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic.