The Quick and Dirty:
Valente adapts the Snow White fairy tale and replants it in the Old West. Our Snow White is the half-Crow daughter of a gem and precious metal robber-baron-type based in San Francisco—she lives a lonely childhood mostly ignored by her father, with only the animals in her backyard menagerie as her friends. After her father marries a cruel woman from the east coast, Snow White runs away to wilder parts of the West and has encounters with a huntsman/Pinkerton detective, a commune of (perhaps 7?) women living together in Montana to escape their pasts, and other hidden elements of the traditional Snow White tale. While it takes its cues from a fairy tale, this is definitely not a book for children—there are a lot of issues regarding race and the often-downtrodden place of women in history tied up in it. That being said, the book doesn’t feel preachy in anyway. The writing is lyrical and evocative, and poetic in a rough-and-tumble way that suits a fairy tale transpiring in the Old West. Expect some visceral gut-punches as you’re reading.
The Wordy Version (Spoilers May Lurk):
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I really liked the Old West-y style it was written in and Snow White’s voice, with people “cogitating” and “hollerin’” and other phraseology we don’t use so much anymore. I think the writing makes us really able to feel for Snow White with her double-whammy of being a) half-Native American in a white man’s world, and b) a woman, but surprisingly (or not) I was also able to feel for her stepmother Mrs. H, who you get the distinct impression is as horrible as she is due to her treatment as a woman throughout her life.
I also thought the Snow White-isms were blended into the story in a really clever way, so seamlessly that I often didn’t realize they were Snow White-isms until later. Snow White is a young girl with only the tame fox and the dancing bear in the backyard menagerie as her friends—okay, Snow White is like crack to the forest animals, check. But there were other ones that snuck up on me, such as Mrs. H’s creepy-weird mirror. Maybe I’m dense, but it took until about the third instance of the mirror being discussed that I was like oh, magic mirror! There were a few mentions of how Snow White “didn’t much care for apples” before I realized, of course she doesn’t! She’s Snow White! I would say this was a really well-disguised Snow White story, but that sort of makes it sound like the author was actively trying to hide the Snow White-ness. It’s better to say that it was a really skillful adaptation, as the result is something all Valente’s own. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the author has written some really great middle-grade/YA books (the Fairyland books!)—this is not a book for kids, and definitely more in line with the darker Brothers Grimm sort of fairytales than the bright and shiny Disney versions.
The writing in this is really beautiful. I love lyrical, uniquely-styled, impressionistic writing, and Valente really packs some visceral gut punches here. I don’t really know how to describe it, except that you can be reading a scene that you might not be able to personally connect with, never having had anything similar happen to you, but it touches something inside of you in a visceral way that just packs an emotional wallop. That’s something I usually tend to get from poetry, and it makes sense that the same effect is found here, as her writing is very poetic. I read an article once in Entertainment Weekly where the writer referred to that moment of deep emotional understanding or connection on a level your brain doesn’t really comprehend as “rattling your windows,” and I find that’s an apt way of putting it. This book is full of moments that rattled my windows. (I would also recommend reading that article!)
Other things I liked:
- Snow White’s backyard boardwalk with the saloon, slot machine, and shooting game
- Mrs. H’s east coast “puritan” magic, as compared with the magic found out west
- The Pinkerton detective/huntsman (although referring to him as “the dude” kept making me think of The Big Lebowski)
- How despisable Mr. H (Snow White’s father) is
- Snow White herself
- The weird world inside the mirror
- The creative chapter titles you really had to squint at to connect them with what actually happened in the chapter
- The POV change in the middle, from Snow White’s first person POV to a third person narrator. Usually this sort of thing irks me (ask any of my friends to whom I rant about books), but here I thought it was an interesting choice, as “no one can tell a true story about themselves.”
- The cover art and frontispiece by Charles Vess, one of my favorite artists!
- Okay, I liked a lot of things.
The one part I was a little iffy on was the ending. It was different, it was a creative way to get Snow White to a place where she could find acceptance, and it all happened very quickly. As the pages kept flying by and I was 10—no, 6—no, 3! pages from the end, I was getting extremely concerned that there would be no happy ending. I mean, I don’t need a happy ending every time I read a book, but in this one I was really invested in a positive resolution. The deer-legged boy seemed to be a version of the prince (it tore me apart when he tried to cut out his heart to give to the sleeping Snow), but when his kisses wouldn’t wake her up I began to get upset and worried and SO MUCH TURMOIL. But then the ending came and it was positive, happy in its way, with hope for more happiness to come. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with how it ended. “You can’t kiss a girl into anything” (great line), and Snow White never needed a man to save her—she saved herself, and once that was taken care of she was able to move on, live life on her own terms, and maybe even meet up with that deer-legged boy in the story to come after the book has ended.
Maybe not the book for everyone, but if you were raised on a steady diet of fairytales and like visceral gut punches and your happy endings tinged with a hint bittersweet, this might be one for you. Thoroughly enjoyable, 4 stars.