Forget the dark, enchanted forest. Picture instead a masterfully evoked Old West where you are more likely to find coyotes as the seven dwarves. Insert into this scene a plain-spoken, appealing narrator who relates the history of our heroine’s parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. Although her mother’s life ended as hers began, so begins a remarkable tale: equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, this is an utterly enchanting story…at once familiar and entirely new.
Tell Me More: I didn’t know I wanted a Western-genre retelling of Snow White until Catherynne Valente said I could have one, and even as I sped through this glorious novella, part of me couldn’t believe it was a real story.
Here, Snow White isn’t a princess, but a half-Native American daughter of an entrepreneur. Her mother Gun That Sings is a Crow woman, who dies at Snow’s birth, leaving her with a father who spoils her but also keeps her hidden away from society. At her father’s remarriage, Snow discovers the cruelty of her stepmother, a more obvious evil than the casual dismissal she’s experienced thus far as a mixed child.
Mrs. H reached over the card table and smoothed my hair between her fingertips. “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean. And that hair! Black as coal, and those lips, as red as the hearts your savage mother no doubt ate with relish. That’s all right. All women have a taste for hearts. But you will discover that I am a gentle soul. If you do as I say and imitate me as best you are able, perhaps you will find yourself gentled as well. It is not beyond possibility that God will overlook your coarser half and take you to His bosom at the end of days.
From that day forward she never used my name. Eventually I forgot it. Mrs. H called me something new. She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.
In naming her Snow White, Mrs. H drives home a lesson many kids of colour learn at an early age: we live in a world where our appearance is judged far more quickly than our character, and we will spend our lives having to dismantle those quick assumptions and beliefs as they come our way. Even more challenging, Snow finds that she’s stuck in between worlds, without support in either, and she learns to rely on herself for everything.
The novel’s fairy tale roots don’t stick around for long, as Snow eventually runs away from her stepmother and finds herself on an adventure of sorts through the Wild West. Valente spends the first half of the novel in first-person perspective before switching to third-person, setting Snow’s inner monologue against the wider backdrop of her life, and what society makes of her. The shift between writing styles does take some getting used to, though fans of Valente’s other books will likely find it familiar and welcoming.
Valente ties in the seven dwarves with a feminist twist, though there is no Prince Charming in this story–just the horse named so, who helps Snow escape her stepmother. The huntsman makes an appearance, as does the much-storied apple that fells Snow, but they don’t feel like part of a checklist that Valente has stuck to in order to call this book a proper retelling. She builds upon the bones of the original fairy tale and the story responds beautifully, letting Snow take charge of her life with only small callbacks to the myth she represents.
Catherynne M. Valente is an author, poet, and sometime critic who has been known to write as many as six impossible things before breakfast. She is to blame for over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including The Orphan’s Tales, Palimpsest, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She has won the Tiptree Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Lambda Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award for best web fiction. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, an enormous cat, and a slightly less enormous accordion.