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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $27.95

This is not a mystery.

But it IS a book of illuminating moments and writing. Here’s a sample of Helen Oyeyemi’s writing, pretty much selected at random. Boy Novack, a white woman and one of Boy, Snow, Bird’s narrators, is talking about her wedding day:

“Outside it snowed lightly, lifelessly, thousands of white butterflies falling to earth. Becoming Mrs. Whitman was a quiet affair that I didn’t have to diet for.”

Boy, Snow, Bird refers loosely to the Snow White fairy tale, but Oyeyemi’s story is anchored in a middle-class life in the fictional little town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts, in the 1950s and 60s. Boy Novack has run away from a miserable life with her violent ratcatcher father in New York City. She settles at random in Flax Hill, the farthest her money could get her on the bus. Soon she meets other people in their 20s, including her future husband, Arturo Whitman, and his beautiful young daughter, Snow.

What do fairy tales teach us? Why do these tales live long and healthy lives? In all cultures, they provide a grounding point, a moral lesson for the young, and are usually paeans to self-sufficiency. In Snow White the fight is between good and evil, evil holding sway long enough to build our anxiety until good can triumph and make us sigh with relief. It’s black and white.

Speaking of black and white, that’s what Boy, Snow, Bird is about, too.

References to mirrors and reflections are woven throughout the book. What do we see when we look into a mirror? We see deeper than the shallow reflection, Oyeyemi says in her book, sometimes to the point of not seeing our reflection at all. If we try to present our reflection as ourselves, we will fail at a major level, as does the family Boy marries into. As does Boy herself.

Oyeyemi is a black woman, via Nigeria and England. In her story, her characters must deal with what it is like to be a black person who does not look black, whose inner story does not match what is reflected in the mirror. She tells the story with grace and humor, sadness and warmth. Boy’s daughter, Bird, is especially exuberant. She is one of the narrators and her voice lifts the book up with its sound of mischief, joy, and acceptance.

Boy has the part of the wicked stepmother and Snow is Snow White, although neither plays her part as written. So who is Bird? Bird is the unexpected treasure hidden in the winter snow who throws the fairy tale into a spin and makes Boy and Snow question their roles.

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