25 September, 2021

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteSix_Gun_Snow_White_by_Catherynne_M_Valente_200_311
Catherynne M. Valente
Subterranean Press
First Edition: February 28, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59606-552-9

The Brothers Grimm never saw this one coming.

Author Catherynne M. 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 at her birth, and her father – whom she only addresses as Mr. H – lost interest once her mother was gone.  Oh, he makes sure all her needs are met, but he is not exactly attentive.

My father did love me after a kind.  He liked to see me trotted out for supper in a lacy white dress, so he could see my black hair against it.  Less regular, he put me into calfskin and two long braids which is how Crow girls dress.  I did not like the look of him when I did that.  Mr. H did not often introduce me to his business acquaintances or his more intimate partners.  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 was only marginally schooled but learned to shoot a six-gun (having been gifted a beautiful revolver by her father, with red pearls on the handle and a black opal on the pommel, that she named Rose Red) and had run of the vast estate, including a boardwalk built specifically for her with a miniature zoo, a saloon with sarsaparilla taps that never ran dry, a shooting gallery and a silver slot machine that ran on wooden coins her father had made just for her.

When she was 11, her father remarried; the bride came into the marriage tarnished somehow (the reason is never given, but some scandal caused her to be married “below her station” and removed to the frontier – money is powerful, but not as powerful as breeding).  This new stepmother is beautiful and cruel, and gives her stepdaughter a new name – Snow White – for the one thing she is not and never will be.  She 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.

This stepmother , only known as Mrs. H, dismisses the maids and the household help, and makes Snow White do the work instead, scrubbing and laundering and cleaning and cooking.  She dunks the girl in ice cold milk to try to bleach the color out of her skin and makes her carry ice in her mouth and her “woman parts” to purify her.  Finally, Snow White has had 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.

This is where Snow White gets off.  Where she stops telling a story about other folk and starts being a story other folk tell.  It’s like crossing a cold stream.  You don’t even think much about it – water’s not that deep, and only a few miles further on there’s a meal and a bed.  But you’ve left one country and hoofed it on into someplace else.

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, gilt mirror that doesn’t show reflections, but seems to be an inaccessible gateway to… someplace… that holds a hint of just 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 a 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.  We warmend, though, that it may be difficult to obtain a copy to purchase; this lovely volume was only printed as a signed limited edition, capped at 1,000 copies.  Thankfully I was able to obtain a copy through my local library’s inter-library loan system so perhaps that’s where a good chunk (hopefully!) of the copies went.  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.

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