This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.
I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.
In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her. Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:
let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)
It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.
Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.
In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.
For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.
Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.
For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)
Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.
For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves. (43)
It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:
I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.
Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)
Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.
Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.
In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.
She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.
A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.
But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.
At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.
The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.
But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.