Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
At the store, we have, by my estimate, roughly a million copies of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. There is only so much room on the shelves themselves, so I’m constantly shelving, reshelving, and rearranging to not only make room for those copies, but keep them in stock. (It’s selling quite well!) Thus, in the course of my duties as bookseller, I found myself reading a blurb on one of the series’ covers that declared Catherynne M. Valente the next Ray Bradbury. That’s high praise, I thought to myself. And then I thought: Oh, I’ve missed the bus again!
As you may have noticed, due to the years that routinely pass between my putting something on my reading spreadsheet (750+ and counting!) and my actually reading it, I am slow to maneuver when it comes to up and coming voices in literature. By the time I get to those up and coming voices, they’ve got awards on the mantelpiece and rare memorabilia being snapped up left and right. Obviously, I cherish their success, but a part of me wishes that I could have had that feeling of pride that comes with seeing a novelist I love rise to prominence.
Case in point: I am just now coming to Catherynne M. Valente not through The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making or The Orphan’s Tales, but through a limited edition novella that only the grace and keen eye of the Denver Public Library system gave me access to. I may take a while, but I always get there in the end.
Not having read any Valente prior to cracking open (delicately!) my copy of Six-Gun Snow White, I had no idea what to expect, beyond “Snow White in the Wild West.” I was immediately grabbed by the jugular by her half-Crow Snow White, a woman who is all piss, vinegar, and a raw, painful need for a mother’s love. She relates the story of her parents’ union and the abuse she suffers under the hand of her stepmother herself, before stepping back in the narrative when she runs away from home. In adapting “Snow White,” Valente has put the focus squarely on Snow White seeking the approval and comfort of other women while navigating a man’s world.
Even as her stepmother tries to beat whiteness and the idea that to be a woman is to suffer in this world into her, she still yearns for her stepmother’s approval. This crooked kind of love is the only kind she has access to to feed the need within her. The only peace Valente’s Snow White ever finds is in the female-only town of Oh-Be-Joyful, where she’s nursed back to health after her experiences working in a coal mine by a varied crew of outcast women. (Touchingly and telling, she can only sleep next to the most motherly of the women who have, essentially, adopted her.) But her mother issues soon consume her, making Snow White being tricked by her stepmother so much more satisfying than it is in the original fairy tale. Eventually, the center cannot hold, and Snow White becomes, in a sense, Schrodinger’s cat—neither alive nor dead.
And that’s where Six-Gun Snow White goes fuzzy. The voice is impeccable, the characters fully realized, and there are moments of jaw-dropping beauty and sense in Valente’s writing: “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power. For the opposite of weakness, which is not strength but hardness,” hisses a dark, woodland creature into the ear of Snow White’s stepmother before it gives her power (51). But just when Snow White is driven to the lowest point—the novella uses the word “suicide” to refer to her willfully giving into her stepmother for the last trick—it goes flat. While the story does end, it never really resolves the issue that drives the entire piece. It’s as if Snow White only had to sleep it off, instead of facing it dead-on.
I wonder if it’s not the medium that’s done this to Six-Gun Snow White. Valente succeeds at cramming in an entire world in such a small volume, but the world Snow White finds herself in when she wakes up from her famous coma doesn’t quite make it all the way in. There’s plenty of material there, but only a thimbleful makes it into the piece.
Still, Six-Gun Snow White has proven to me that Valente’s voice and imagination is as powerful, if not more, than her reputation says it is. I’m eager to tackle the rest of her bibliography, starting with what’s on my reading list. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, consider yourself bumped.
Bottom line: Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White is a Snow White retelling that grabs you by the jugular and never lets go, placing the focus firmly on a raw, tough Snow White whose mother issues threaten to consume her. It’s a shame that the ending goes a bit fuzzy, but it’s certainly not for a lack of ambition. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.