The Disenchantment of Fairy Tales

in Catherynn M. Valente's Six-Gun Snow White

Review by Andrea Fox

Fairytales have certainly seen their fair share of retellings over the years, and Snow White’s story is no exception. The Grimm Brothers introduce this character to cultural history as a young girl fleeing an evil queen who is jealous of her beauty and wants to consume her liver and lungs. The queen ends up deceiving Snow into eating a poison apple that causes a deathlike sleep. Yet even in this state, Snow manages to enamor a prince passing by. As his troop attempts to carry her away, they drop her coffin, dislodging the apple from her throat and awakening Snow to a happily ever after married to the prince. More than a hundred years later, Walt Disney took this fairy tale and created the well-known animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dispelling with the Grimms’ darker themes for a more a child-friendly interpretation, Disney alters the queen’s call for Snow’s organs to be a desire for her kind heart—entirely glossing over the earlier cannibalism. The additional romance of a true love’s kiss breaking the sleeping spell also changes the tone to be light-hearted. Most recently in 2011, Disney’s gritty live action remake Snow White and the Huntsman transforms the character once again. Snow’s innocent nature is left behind in exchange for her becoming a trained warrior who must escape the queen before she can eat Snow’s heart and gain immortality. Snow still falls for the poison apple trick, cured this time by true love’s kiss from the huntsman rather than the prince, but her happy ending involves Snow rallying a crusade to take back the kingdom. These three versions alone demonstrate how one fairy tale can be retold in many ways—bringing to mind the adage that there are no new stories anymore. [1]
     Catherynne M. Valente adds to this long list of reiterations with her novella Six Gun Snow White, but she does more than simply set this fairy tale in the Wild West; this author reinvents Snow’s character wholesale by giving her an Indigenous heritage. The fantasy world of the original Snow White is deconstructed through the realism of how her racial identity saturates her perspective and drives her to the plot’s forgone conclusion. In this environment, recognizable elements of this tale are twisted into a critique of the more traditional stories that have come before and the ideologies they support. The unapologetic narrative voice makes apparent the harmful impact of applying a fairy tale perspective to the real world, truly fitting the cover’s tagline, “A Fully Loaded Fairy Tale,” where the pointed words hit like a bullet and stay like a wound.
     Valente quickly develops a southern dialect in her narration that matches the Western setting, but instead of drawing from ideas of southern politeness, she ensures her narrators name privilege and stereotypes head-on to disenchant them and illustrate their destructive consequences. This stylistic choice comes in part from Snow White’s position as the daughter of a white man and a Crow woman. Situated at the particular intersection of an Indigenous woman facing both whiteness and male privilege, Snow recognizes that the characters around her hesitate “to call a thing what it is” (4). Specifically, the white townspeople talk graciously about risqué topics—insinuating her father committed a social indiscretion by marrying a Crow woman without blatantly condemning the action. Snow’s bluntness counters this sweet-talking. In this case, she describes the marriage not as a step down for her father but as the objectification and ownership of her mother. Snow openly addresses the way he stalked a woman that he did not know for weeks before forcibly holding a literal shotgun wedding with her family. This presentation of events destroys the fantasy created by the white characters that her parents were star-crossed lovers with the reality that the union was not one of mutual love. By freeing Snow’s voice from the confines of southern sensibilities without losing that distinctive inflection, Valente opens the way for Snow’s identity to be a source of disillusionment for her classic story’s concept of race and womanhood.

     No matter the rendition, the character of Snow White can always be narrowed down to the one constant of her fairness—in the context of beauty as well as kindness—but Valente rejects both through Snow’s new point of view. Pale skin was prized in the original tale, with Snow’s mother wishing for a daughter whose complexion was as white as snow. The magic mirror’s decision on who is the fairest also relies in part on Snow’s skin being considered pure. In this novella, though, whiteness is portrayed to be blinding because Snow is no longer witnessing it from inside that circle. Valente pulls from a history of people being subjected to oppression in a white society for their Indigenous heritage to define her main character in this world. As such, Snow states, “[her stepmother] named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness” (33) as the classic fairy tale implies, but as a cruel reminder of a physically unobtainable quality which her racial identity lacks that nevertheless results in the torturous act of bathing in freezing milk to try anyway. Such a twist on the name’s origin draws attention to and undermines how linked Snow’s beauty has always been to her skin color, setting the tone for the rest of the book where Snow leaves behind these ideas. After she abandons her home in elite society and labors in gem mines, the narrator observes that “she don’t present much of a woman anymore: filthy with sweat grime and ruby dust, white scar on her cheek like a star, clothes hard done by and none too ladylike to begin with” (85). For me, the question of whether she remained the fairest became does it matter to her, or has it always been a label imposed by the men around her?

     The answer seems to lie in how Valente allows Snow to present herself first, not as sweet or caring, but cunning. The novella features two narrators, and Snow begins the tale before the moment when the storybook traditionally opens—before her father is dead, and she is forced to flee her evil stepmother. When the third person narrator takes over, they succinctly imply the point of this switch: “[Snow] stops telling a story about other folk and starts being a story other folk tell” (65). In this way, Snow’s narration is crafted to be a means for her to take back her voice which is never heard and break apart how the traits she has been loved for are methods to keep her silent. Hints of the classic Snow’s quiet and compassionate disposition twist into survival techniques Snow employs to gain her father’s affection. Shamed for having a daughter with a Crow woman, he keeps her a secret from his business associates and only engages with her by dressing her up for his own amusement in outfits typical of both white and Indigenous women. Due to this limited relationship, Snow compares herself to an automatic girl where one can “pull the lever in her heart and she dispenses love, pose her arms and legs and she exhibits grace—then put her away in her cabinet again” (11). Maintaining this obedient persona means being loved at the loss of her voice. In the sexist world she lives in, Snow is better off being the cunning, brutal woman she develops into.
     However, this cunningness importantly is not the same thing as the reinterpretations of Snow White where she defies her damsel in distress nature by fighting and saving herself. This calculating personality is not about positive self-empowerment; it’s a necessary trait developing in a woman who has faced abuse. Snow’s cunning shows up in her means of placating her tormenting stepmother before she runs away and in how she disguises herself as a man to work in labor intensive mines for money to feed herself. Even as this book throws away fairy tales’ emphasis on romantic love by making Prince Charming a horse, the reason Snow does not seek a partner out is not from an independent woman standpoint. After enduring cruelty under a stepmother that said she acted out of love, Snow’s interpretation is that “love is what grown folk do to each other because the law frowns on killing” (40). Therefore, this novella affords her agency that is reactive to her oppression, not driven by choice. The change to a third person narrator allows space to see Snow’s cunning as heart wrenching when it pushes her towards an escape of her torment through death. The notorious eating of the poison apple is not innocent ignorance or trickery, the honest narrator states, “this is a suicide we’re watching, full faith and knowledge” (139). Such a line made me physically put the book down and rethink how this phrasing goes against everything whimsical fairy tales are meant to be, but necessitates a come to reality moment of how these types of stories actually go.
     That realism is at the center of Valente’s work, and just as she disconnects the character of Snow White from idealized goodness, this author offers the stepmother interiority that humanizes her as another victim of societal circumstance. In more traditional versions of this tale, the evil queen is never justified, her wickedness being an innate feature seen in her lust for power or cannibalism which cannot be overcome. In fact, in the Grimm and two Disney iterations, this character must be killed for her evil nature, her death praised. Yet Valente takes great steps to avoid condemning her fully for her actions despite the fact that she is the primary antagonist. Although the stepmother’s racism is never excused, the suffering she inflicted upon Snow is shown to be a product of her own personal experience as a woman in a patriarchal society. Through the magic mirror, Snow watches her stepmother as a young woman be forced into grueling housework despite the many servants at hand. The stepmother is told by the woman commanding her, “This is what it means to be a woman in the world. Obey until a man gives you permission to die and keep on obeying after. The tasks you’re handed make less sense than a rooster in a Sunday hat, but if God wanted us to have a say, he’d have made us men” (47). With this background, the character’s actions become less senseless cruelty and more learned behavior intended to similarly teach Snow how to survive in man’s society. Even the stepmother’s demand for Snow’s heart is a desire readers are made to sympathize with because her motive is to give the heart to her son—born inside the magic mirror—so he can finally be free in the real world. Certainly, this character is compromised, but not in such a way that the narrative condemns her to be killed. Instead she dies naturally of old age because her actions are those of someone understandably seeking to obtain the power of control when structures leave them powerless. Valente’s added complexity to the evil queen’s one dimensional character challenges how fairy tales present the world in black and white morals, instead demonstrating that reality does not operate in such simple terms.
     The ending of Six-Gun Snow White is a culmination of these critiques on the classic story’s values because the issues Snow faced are not resolved in a single magical solution, but left lingering to further influence her life after the book closes. Valente’s choice to write her version of this fairy tale as a novella provided her with a longer structure to nuance the story. She uses the opportunity to give characters interiority and develop the motivations for their actions beyond what is generally retold. Yet, Valente refuses to offer a satisfactory conclusion that expands on the details of what happens after the curse breaks. The original Grimms’ tale—notorious for its dark content—still completes the fantasy with Snow married, an event considered at the time to be the happiest of conflict resolutions. The queen is dead, her threat neutralized, and Snow is promised loving company for the rest of her life. While this novella has a return to that version where the jarring of Snow’s coffin not true love’s kiss breaks the sleeping spell, the similarities end there. Snow does not get married, and while the stepmother has long passed, the emotional damage she and her society caused will continue to scar Snow. The only hope the book allows is that Snow wakes up, but she is out of her time period, without a reunion with her companions, without the implication that this new world will be kinder—shooting the reader once again with the fact that this fairy tale demands the realism of an unhappy ending.

Notes:

[1] “Snow White Through the Years.” Los Angeles Times, 30 Mar 2012.
 

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