Booked Up

Black and White and Beautiful

A young British writer transforms the Snow White fable into a beautiful novel about race relations.

By - May 5th, 2014 10:52 am
Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

Why does a wicked step-mother become the villain we know from fairy tales? The gifted young writer Helen Oyeyemi lets us see the story from the villain’s point of view in her mesmerizing fable, Boy, Snow, Bird, which takes us on a weird and twisted journey through the skeleton of the “Snow White” story into the fraught world of 20th Century race relations. It is a strange trip that you will ponder long after finishing this beautifully written novel.

Ms. Oyeyemi is just 30, but has three novels under her belt. Named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young British Novelists, she has a unique pedigree that makes her latest novel even more admirable. Born in Nigeria, she grew up in London, and here writes of the U.S. during the 1950’s and ‘60’s. She is equally adept at recreating the speech of working-class New Yorkers or the educated denizens of Worchester, Mass. Her reconstruction of this tumultuous time in American civil rights is perfect in tone and reminds one of a cross between Sylvia Plath and Lorraine Hansberry, with a dash of gothic Shirley Jackson thrown in for good measure!

Told in three distinct parts, Boy, Snow, Bird recounts a warped family saga of people abused by those they love. All of this unfolds on the loose structure of the “Snow White” tale, revealed this time from the wicked step-mother’s perspective. You will be charmed (and repulsed) by the inner voices of the main characters, but you may swear you’ve met these people. Ms. Oyeyemi channels a variety of American voices and attitudes in a manner that seems almost bewitching.

Boy Novak becomes the wicked step-mother in a subtle way that sneaks up on you. It is all the more artful because the transformation is wrapped up in the racial issues that roiled America during our last century. She is an icy cypher who doesn’t come into her own until the unexpected conclusion of this clever book. Her step-daughter is Snow Whitman, light and beautiful in a way that causes others to stumble. She is our Snow White and is the least developed of the characters, probably with good reason. Snow’s half-sister is Bird Whitman, dark and brilliant, given to deceit and magical thinking. Her story anchors the strong second part of the book.

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird

Besides these main players, Ms. Oyeyemi conjures an unusual supporting cast, each with their wounds to hide or reveal. I had a little difficulty navigating all the interconnections of this extended family, but found that concentrating on the title characters clarified any confusion. Their stories illuminate race in America and point to prejudices that still plague us today. Ms. Oyeyemi gives everyone a star turn or two and keeps us entertained in the process. This is a great balancing act, as much of her subject matter is disturbing and uncomfortable.

As for the magic mirror of the fairy tale, it, too, appears, and ultimately reveals some form of beauty in all the participants, so there is hope of redemption that may cheer the reader. Not all of the questions are answered, but every magician must keep some secrets. Ms. Oyeyemi is especially adept at interweaving tales into the family narrative. While they may strike you as interruptions to the plot, they work as part of the enchantment the author is brewing. Each fable becomes a mirror to the issues that the characters are confronting.

There has been a rash of updated, often cute fairy tale novels in the last 25 years. Boy, Snow, Bird is not a part of that movement. Instead, this is thought-provoking fiction that reminds us how important it is to look beyond the obvious and put ourselves in the skin of our neighbors before we dare to judge them.

Upcoming Book Events:

Monday, May 5 (7:00 PM): Ticketed Event with Garrison Keillor, author of The Keillor Reader at the UWM Union Ballroom, in the Student Union on the UWM Campus, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. in Milwaukee. $30 (including all taxes and fees) and includes admission for one person and an autographed copy of The Keillor Reader. Tickets are available on the Brown Paper Tickets website and at the UWM Bookstore for $30/$27 for those with a valid UWM student ID. Co-sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio and Milwaukee Public Radio.

Tuesday, May 6 (7:00 PM): Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181 Co-sponsored by the Milwaukee Business Journal and 800-CEO-Read.

Thursday, May 8 (10:30 AM to 2:00 PM): Milwaukee Public Library’s Spring Literary Luncheon featuring Shauna Singh Baldwin, author of The Selector of Souls at the Wisconsin Club, 900 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Book sales and signing begin at 10:30 AM.; the lunch and talk begin at Noon. Tickets are $50 for members and $60 for non-members, and include lunch for one and a signed copy of your choice of The Selector of Souls or The Tiger Claw. For tickets, call Valerie (414) 286-8720 or email her at: Co-sponsored by Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library and Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, May 8 (4:00 PM): Shorewood Public Library Event with Michael Hall, author of It’s an Orange Aardvark!, at Shorewood Public Library, 3920 N. Murray Avenue in Shorewood. Following this event will be a crafting activity with Miss Heide. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, May 8 (7:00 PM): Local Book Launch with Eva Augustin Rumpf, author of In Liberty’s Name at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, May 9 (7:00 PM): Local Book Launch with Mary “Peetie” Basson, author of Saving Kandinsky at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, May 9 (7:00 PM): Reading with Nathan Hoks, Genevieve Kaplan, and Joel Craig at Woodland Pattern Book Center. Free admission

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!


0 thoughts on “Booked Up: Black and White and Beautiful”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This novel sounds very poetic, down to its very title, Boy, Snow, Bird.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It is beautifully written and turns the Snow White story on its ear. It deserves a wide audience!

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