Welcome to the first of my book reviews for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. The rules, such as there are rules, allow me the flexibility to decide what kind of story fits each of those four categories, provided I manage to offer up one of each. I’ve got a nicely unconventional selection prepared…
Six-Gun Snow White
by Catherynne M. Valente
Mr. H, a man made rich by his knack for sniffing out what things of value the ground has hidden within it, travels to Montana “on a horse so new and fine her tail squeaked” in search of further wealth. What he finds is a shameful lust for a Crow woman whose beauty he can only perceive in mineral terms – her coal-black hair, garnet lips, copper skin and black-diamond eyes… He mistakes her fear and contempt for a reflection of his passion, imagines taming her as his bride, civilising her in his house, and if taming and civilising are yet to come he at least achieves the marriage and her delivery to his home. But she dies giving him a daughter.
Shunned in her father’s grief, that girl is raised with everything a child might want: dresses and gifts, a fine house filled with maids and servants, vast grounds containing her very own amusement arcade, with caged bear and other animals, even a hall of mirrors to wander — but no friends for companionship. She is secluded from the world, because within polite society her mongrel nature cannot be acknowledged. Her name is cruelly ironic. Too dark to be decent, too pale to be Crow, Snow White is neither and grows up alone.
This semi-outcast status escalates with the arrival of her father’s new wife, a sophisticated beauty with an unspoken-of past from a respectable East Coast family. Snow White naively anticipates the family they will become together, but instead she comes to see herself through alien eyes. Her stepmother’s interest in her is glacial, aloof, and hungry. As her protected isolation gives way to the chilly oppression of her stepmother’s rule, Snow White straps on the jewelled pistol her father gave her, mounts the handsome horse her father gave her, and rides away from the perfect home her father imprisoned her in — an offence her stepmother cannot allow to stand…
This is certainly the easiest of the stories I’ve chosen to review as far as categorising is concerned — fairytales don’t come much more archetypal than that of Snow White.
It is also a story that lends itself well to reinterpretation: although completely overshadowed by the success of The Artist, the Spanish modern-silent-movie version, Blancanieves, is a really excellent piece of cinema, shedding (almost all) the overt fantasy elements only to find real-world alternatives: instead of king, queen and mistreated princess, in this Snow White is the forgotten daughter of a celebrated, then crippled, toreador, her evil step-mother his doting nurse, really a grasping gold-digger. And the seven dwarves? Well, there’s only six of them, but otherwise…
Catherynne M. Valente’s take on the story is both faithful and freshly inventive. The immediately noticeable aspect of the book is the narrator’s voice, soon enough revealed as Snow White’s own. The story is relayed via a slangy dialect which establishes both the main character and the world around her in a very striking way, subverting the traditional Pretty Girl Imperilled trope in favour of a much more earthy and active protagonist. The skeleton of the original story is always detectable, but what makes the story stand out are, of course, the deviations from it.
This is a Snow White not sent to face death but who, in the face of grave threat, chooses to leave and make her own way in a dangerous world, challenging the authority of her step-mother rather than simply being the victim of it. She isn’t granted her freedom by a kindly minion, unable to murder her as commanded, but gathers her few resources and rides off to find freedom for herself.
Although as a child she longs for conventional ideals — the traditional family, healthy parental love — rather than these presiding over her rise into a perfect pseudo-mother and Desirable Prize For The Right Man, she grows instead into a figure of strong self-reliance; and instead of a child-sized brood to take care of, she finds a gang of equals to herself, allies who value her strengths as complementary to their own.
The huntsman of the old story is also renovated here — a glance at the rather gorgeous Charles Vess cover art gives a hint about just how, but I won’t go into details because I’d prefer not to spoil one of the few explicitly super-natural elements of this fantasy. What I will say is that I found satisfying parallels between what Snow White decides she will live without and what the tragic figure sent after her feels he cannot. Valente lends some depth to her villains, not just her heroes.
Fairytales are often cherished for their “timeless” qualities (it’s certainly a word associated with the Disney versions…), but the Happily Ever Afters which audiences have at times been treated to give the lie to the notion that fairytales never change. Call humanity cynical, but the idea of a Prince Charming, waiting around some corner to whisk our lady off to the perfect life she always dreamed of, now seems more trite than heart-warming.
Both this version of Snow White and Blancanieves offer us something other than the simple happy ending, the movie in particular taking a strange turn that balances between sour and bitter-sweet. I have to say that the resolution of Six-Gun Snow White was far from what I might have anticipated and, I must admit, not my favourite aspect of it. Still, it ends in a thoughtful, unusual mode, words that amply sum up the novella as a whole. It’s a vivid and interesting read.
Next I’m reviewing the first of six short stories. Until Sunday…
A quick heads-up: I was just interviewed by the very charming Davis Ashura, an indie author like myseld, who took the time to quiz me about the ebook I released last week, Aftermaths. Check it out if you want to know:
- tantalising hints about the stories contained therein
- all about my favourite book
- who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman