Six-Gun Snow White
Catherynne M. Valente
Release Date: February 28th, 2013
Rating: 5 stars
Word Rating: Gorgeous
Reviewed by: Kate
From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title's heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.
This is a hard review to write. It took me a long time to read the book--which is really just a novella--because every few pages I had to set it aside for Feelings reasons. Valente has so much to say about so many important things, and she says them all so beautifully. Snow White suffers as a minority, as a woman, and as a helpless child, and in each of these roles, perhaps the most painful thing for her is that she is always caught between two worlds, never belonging in either; she is claimed by neither whites nor her mother's Crow family, she is not particularly feminine or interested in men, and her father abandons her first to a series of governesses and later to a literal witch of a stepmother.
A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her 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. With her mother's death in childbirth, so begins a heroine's 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, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.
Everything in this world requires a heart in trade. There's no such thing as a good bargain.
The events of Snow White's life are really the fault of her father. He forces a Crow woman (who despises him) to marry him, and when he learns she is pregnant, he prays, "let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you're listening, skin as white as mine." And of course she isn't born white, so when her father finds a new wife, he shuts Snow White up in the house and claims she is his ward, not his daughter. And then he leaves town for work and never bothers to return.
You may not know it but the keeping of a large house by one girl is the hardest work going on earth. I heard there's fire in hell but I'll bet the Devil just hands you a bucket and tells you to get moving, this place ain't gonna clean itself.
Which is when Snow White's stepmother takes over. It is she who re-names Snow White, who is just a child, so cruelly, and who tells her she could (being an Indian) never be mistaken for human, and who later abuses her physically in some truly horrifying ways. But even as the stepmother behaves like a monster, we're given some insight into her tortured past, and when Snow White accuses her of being a witch and performing magic, she says,"Magic is just a word for what's left to the powerless once everyone else has eaten their fill." It's pretty sobering to see, in flashbacks, the similarities between how she was treated and what she's doing to her stepdaughter.
Your past's a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can't hurt anyone.
When Snow White leaves her father's house, the book switches to third person, and it really opens up and starts to breathe in these pages. All the essential pieces of the classic story are here, but there's also a full life added in, and it all feels real and immediate and honest. The characters' actions--such as the huntsman's giving the stepmother the heart of a deer rather than that of Snow White--have strange, disturbing consequences.
Listen, girl, I came to tell you that life is stupid. It just pulls the same shit over and over. Sometimes you think you can make it come out different, but you can't. You're in a story and the body writing it is an asshole.
Toward the end of the book, Snow White finds a community of seven outlaw women and moves in with them, finally fitting in and experiencing a bit of normal life, but she's scarred, and she's sad, and she's done. She's just done with all of it. I love how she interacts with these people who essentially function as the only real family Snow White has ever had.
You can't kiss a girl into anything.
I think your enjoyment of this version of Snow White will largely depend on how you feel about the politics of classic fairy tales. If you're not particularly bothered by the typical characterizations of the benevolent father, the evil crone, the innocent beauty, and the handsome prince charming, you may roll your eyes a bit here. I don't know. I crave stories that look at abuse and race and patriarchal values with honesty and compassion for the people involved, so it's hard for me to step back and be objective. And really, why should I be? This is a beautiful novella that touched me emotionally, and I hope more people give it a chance, because it's really something special