Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
The Brothers Grimm never saw this one coming.
Author Catherynne Valente has taken the age old fairy tale of Snow White, infused it with images and archetypes of the Old West and threaded it with Native American folklore. The result is a unique retelling that is full of hauntingly familiar echoes relayed in beautifully sparse yet lush language.
The daughter of a rich miner baron and a beautiful Crow maiden, Snow White has no recollection of her actual her birth name. Her mother died giving birth, and her father – whom she only addresses as Mr. H – lost interest once her mother was gone. He makes sure all her needs are met, but he is not exactly attentive.
A daughter was a special doll to be kept in a glass cabinet. An automatic girl the master of the house brought out to entertain at the table with charming words, to be polished up with powder and elaborate costumes. 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.
Raised by hired help, Snow White is only marginally schooled but learns to shoot a six-gun (having been gifted a beautiful revolver by her father that she names Rose Red due to the red pearls on the handle) and has run of the vast estate, including a boardwalk with a miniature zoo, a saloon with sarsaparilla taps, a shooting gallery and a silver slot machine that runs on wooden coins her father has made just for her.
When she is 11, her father remarries; the bride comes into the marriage tarnished somehow (the reason is never given, but some scandal caused her to be married “below her station”). This new stepmother is beautiful and cruel, and gives her stepdaughter a name for the one thing the child can never be -Snow White – and enters into a sadistic campaign to turn the girl into a lady, into something “human”:
She put jasper and pearl combs in my hair and yanked them so tight I cried – there, now you’re a lady, she said, and I did not know if the comb or the tears did it. She put me in her own corsets like nooses strangling my waist til I was sick, my breath gone and my stomach shoved up into my ribs – there, now you’re civilized, she said, and I did not know if it was the corset or the sickness that did it. She forbade me to eat sweets or any good thing til I got thin as a dog and could hardly stand I was so damn hungry – there, now you’re beautiful, she said and I did not know if it was my dog-bones showing or my crawling in front of her begging for a miserable apple to stop my belly screaming that made me fair.
For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves.
Finally, Snow White has enough, so she dresses up in men’s clothes, steals a horse (that she names “Charming”), grabs Rose Red, and heads out to find Indian Territory where she hopes to re-establish contact with her mother’s people.
The second half of the book deals with Snow White’s journey, the experiences she has and the people she meets (no sign of dwarves but some other interesting groups of seven…), and there’s also the matter of the strange mirror that doesn’t show reflections, but seems to be an inaccessible gateway to… someplace… that holds a hint of why Snow White’s purity is so important to her stepmother, who really does turn out to be evil…
Not only is the imagery in Six-Gun Snow White lush and the interpretation of the fairy tale fresh and surprising, but the language that Catherynne M. Valente utilizes has a clarity and a sharpness that is breathtaking. Snow White is poetically pragmatic, unforgiving of herself and others, uncompromising and self-sufficient. Yet the fairy tale still uniquely reverberates and delights as the thread – the merest thread – that holds the story together.
Quickly read, easily consumed, yet immensely satisfying, this novella is a gorgeous piece of work. Be warned, though, that it may be difficult to obtain a copy; this lovely volume was only printed as a limited edition, capped at 1,000 copies. But even if it may prove to be a task to find a copy, for those who love superior writing, intriguing folklore and entertaining storytelling, this is a challenge well worth undertaking.