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“Boy, Snow, Bird” by Nigerian-born British author Helen Oyeyemi takes place in the 1950s. The story is told from the points of view of two women, Boy and Bird. The author uses the symbolism of the fairy tale “Snow White” and other stories to explore the history of race in America.
Boy Novak is a young white woman who flees her home in New York to escape the beatings administered by her father, the “Rat Catcher.” Boy settled in a small town in Massachusetts where she rents a room and finds a job in a bookstore. There, Boy is not looking for love – she is not sure it even exists – but just wants some peace and beauty in her life.
Living in constant fear of her father has left her unable to trust anyone until
she meets Arturo Whitman, a wealthy widower, who is kind to her. He has a young daughter, Snow, and even says to Boy at one point that what he wants is a mother for Snow. They marry, and Boy settles into what she hopes will be a quiet, uneventful life.
Boy does not know that Arturo, a professor-turned-jewelry-maker, is a light-skinned African American who left Mississippi and passed for white. His parents wanted a life without their race being an issue. Their first grandchild, Snow, is the embodiment of their hopes. She has beautiful blond hair, a lovely disposition and everyone adores her, even Boy.
When Boy gives birth to Bird, a beautiful, but dark-skinned, baby, she begins to look at Snow differently. Her own child will never be able to blossom in the same way as her white older sister. To her horror, Boy, who had a terrible childhood with a violent father and no mother, suddenly finds herself the wicked stepmother.
The author takes the fairy tale “Snow White” further, making the point, possibly, that what is first observed of someone is not necessarily indicative of their real nature.
Snow is just as genetically black as her half-sister, Bird. Looks can be deceiving. Bird is an endearing and tough little girl. She may not do well in school, but she is smart, observant and strong.
The author works out the arguments for passing in the memorable characters of Boy, Snow and Bird, as each struggles with her race and identity. This novel is a tragic story of race in America and the pain and anger associated with having one’s identity shaped by others because of the color of their skin.