Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Boy, Snow, Bird” a novel by Helen Oyeyemi

June 13, 2014

Race and sex should be easy categories to check off, immutable characteristics that everyone understands. But in fact even those categories turn out to be more fluid than we had understood (see, for example, Jan Morris’ terrific memoir “Conundrum” about her sex change, reviewed here.) The three main characters of Helen Oyeyemi’s engaging new novel “Boy, Snow, Bird” are a girl named Boy, a girl named Snow, and a girl named Bird. It’s a central strength of the novel that each is more than she appears, and that together they teach us something new about the classifications that half a century of law and usage have made of our natures.

In the early 1950s, Boy Novak, who is about 18, runs away from her home after her father, a rat catcher, abuses and humiliates her one time too many. Her mother died long ago, and she is leaving behind only her friend Charlie, who might or might not love her. She fetches up in a small town in central Massachusetts, where she lives in a boarding house and makes enough money doing odd jobs to survive – and even pay back the money she stole from her father. She becomes friends with two of the other young women in the boarding house, particularly Mia, a journalist. Through them she meets Arturo Whitman, the widowed father of Snow. He’s a history teacher turned jewelry-maker, and he gives Boy a gift of a bracelet: a gold snake that winds up her arm.

Appearances here are deceiving. The first hint comes when Boy meets Arturo’s mother, sister and daughter. Snow’s other grandmother, Agnes Miller, is also there. The room is dark, and there are areas of conversation that are clearly but silently declared out of bounds. The second hint comes when Arturo’s other sister, Clara, sends a gift to celebrate Arturo’s wedding to Boy. The gift is the first time Boy learns of Clara’s existence. Clara and her mother don’t get along, Arturo tells Boy. But it’s not because of anything that Clara has done, really. It’s because of who Clara is.

The language of Arturo’s Massachusetts family carried a few tones of the south. At first the reader winces at the anachronisms, but this book is carefully crafted, and the language is another clue. When Boy and Arturo have a daughter, Bird, who is born “with a suntan,” the secret is out. The Whitmans and the Millers are emigres from Mississippi. They are also passing as white – during the move north they decided to uncheck the race box. Hence the dark rooms and conversational shutdowns. Clara’s fault, if it is one, is that she has been born with dark skin. Keeping the secret in the nineteen fifties leads to some grotesque behavior, but as Snow later says,

. . . you can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this.

This is only the beginning of the revelations and understanding that Boy, Snow, and Bird come to over the 15 or so years covered by the novel. The reader becomes enmeshed in this family drama, sharing Boy’s and Bird’s need to know, to understand, to manage. Everyone pays a price when the secrets are revealed.

The complex racial and social themes provide a persuasive background for this deeply felt story of family life. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Liliane Ruyters

    Boy, Snow, Bird is a fairy tale. To be honest I did not realise I had been reading a fairy tale. It might be my fault that I did not get the clues: a girl called Snow, mirrors and Bird being able to talk to animals. To be quite honest, I found those details distracting. Boy, Snow, Bird is a tale about discrimination, race and gender. I found the bleak fact that light-skinned afro-american families would rather send their children to darker-skinned relatives then being exposed as afro-americans quite upsetting. Boy marries a white man with a beautiful daughter, Snow. When Boy gives birth to her daughter Bird she turns out to have golden skin and black curly hair. Her mother-in-law expects her to do what she once did: send the girl south to be raised in an afro-american environment. Boy however sends Snow away. Throughout the novel you wonder why: does she want to protect her own daughter or is she merely jealous of Snow? The fact is that Boy herself did not have an easy upbringing and appears afraid of getting close to people. At the end of the novel Boy is told the truth about her mother and then finally she realises that her mother did not leave her but made an enormous sacrifice in order being able to raise Boy. At that moment Boy is capable of accepting Snow and takes both her daughters to meet Bird’s unknown grandparent.
    Oyeyemi has written her novel in three parts: Boy, Bird and Boy tell their story. When Boy tells her story you feel the remoteness, as a reader you never get close to her. Bird on the other hand lets you in. In the final pages, after Boy realises the truth about her parents, she finally lets the reader into her life. I find that Oyeyemi shows her quality in applying her style of writing to determine her characters. I could have done without the Snowwhite parallel, I loved reading about Boy, Snow and Bird.