'Boy, Snow, Bird': New novel explores tradition of 'passing' in American culture

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years…I believed them to be trustworthy,” opens British author Helen Oyeyemi’s tense fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird.

Putting us on guard early, the talented black author whose fourth novel, Mr. Fox, earned her a spot on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, warns of the misleading nature of appearances in her loose recasting of the Snow White narrative.

Oyeyemi’s foreboding tone ushers us along on eggshells, opening from the perspective of Boy (the would-be evil stepmother), a white woman who flees her dreary home in New York and her abusive father dubbed, “the rat catcher,”  for the prim backdrop of a small, well-to-do, New England community. There Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a handsome jewelry designer who, if not quite prince charming, makes her a suitable husband, offering her comfort, security and an opportunity to put her dingy past behind her. Boy’s daughter-in-law, Snow, is doted on by the Whitman clan, and at first Boy, too, is taken in by Snow’s radiant, lily-white beauty.

But after the birth of Boy and Arturo’s first child, Bird, whose dark features reveal the Whitmans have been concealing their black bloodline, Boy comes to resent Snow and her “trick” of beauty, relating to the reader in an utterly camp but nonetheless deeply satisfying moment, “Snow is not the fairest of them all. And the sooner she…and all the rest of them understand that, the better.”

The story then shifts to the perspectives of Bird and Snow as the sisters grow-up, struggling to make sense of their estranged familial bonds through a series of prescient letters exchanged after Snow, ironically, is sent away at Boy’s behest to live with the Southern, dark-skinned branch of the Whitman family – a fate usually reserved for those unable to successfully pass in white society.

In the broader context of a long tradition of passing narratives in literature and film from Mark Twain’s Puddin’ Head Wilson (1894) to Nellla Larson’s Passing (1929) to both John M. Stahl’s (1934) and Douglas Sirk’s (1959) productions of Imitation of Life, just to name a few, Oyeyemi adroitly navigates the perils of permeating the color line, weaving a fraught and at times grim fairytale that examines the phantom nature of personal identity. You get a keen sense of Oyeyemi’s awareness of the significant bearing of film on the formation of ideas and representations of race and beauty when, at one point, one character describes the idolized Snow as “this lifelike little projection [that] walks around and around a reel, untouchable.”

Unlike Susan Kohner’s smoldering Sarah Jane in Sirk’s silver screen production of “Imitation of Life” who hotly contests that her black mother “can’t help her color, but I can and I will,” recklessly choosing to stake a claim on a life free of racial bias by attempting to pass as white, Oyeyemi’s Snow is all but innocent of her family’s “racial transgressions,” and, even after learning of her black heritage, does not seek to renounce her “black self” or otherwise capitalize on her outer (ostensibly white) appearance. Neither does she, however, make an entirely conscious choice to embrace her black identity, robbed (or spared) this choice by forced exile.

In this way she becomes less a symbol of the racial self-hatred passing is largely associated with and more of a marker by which “the instability of race as a signifying category” can be measured (Kathleen Pfeiffer, “Race Passing and American Individualism”).

Indeed what is most striking in Oyeyemi’s construction is not so much what the ability or choice to pass does to the individual, although this is tragically illustrated in the characterization of the well-preserved yet brittle, lye-lacquered and weary Whitman women – but how this potential for passing destabilizes the circumscribed identities of those around Snow.

This point is well drawn in her sister Bird’s precocious observation that she in fact had a “moment of hating her [Snow], or at least understanding why [her] mom did. Thankfully it came and went really quickly, like a dizzy spell, or a three[-]second blizzard. Does she know she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her.”