Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I like fairy tale retellings. At least, in theory, I like them. I've found a lot I was dissatisfied with, often because the characters were shoehorned into their roles without a lot of character exploration. Despite the glut of Snow White retellings, this one sounded different enough it deserved a chance. Besides, it was nominated for a Hugo.
Six-Gun Snow White takes place in the Old West, in an untamed land populated by robber barons and the exploited native population. A silver baron, Mr. H, takes a native girl named Gun That Sings as his wife, without consulting her on the matter. He threatens to exploit her family's land to gain their grudging consent. She has a single daughter, and dies. Mr. H's new wife ironically names her Snow White, and spends much of the girl's childhood bathing her in ice cold milk to take the darkness out of her skin.
Snow White escapes her stepmother, and just in time, because, as in the original tale, the evil stepmother wants Snow's heart. The huntsman comes in the form of a bounty hunter who sees Snow as just another spoiled kid who'll be easy to track down. But she's clever and resourceful, and learns everything she can about surviving in the lawless lands. The dwarves show up as the women running an all-female town.
The ending of the story takes it in an odd direction. I suppose it would have to; everyone knows the iconic story, and we can't have a predictable ending. I would've had an easier time with it if I'd been clear on the relationship between Snow and her stepmother's mirror-child, the reason why the stepmother needs Snow White's heart. There's a strong bond between Snow White and Deer Boy, but I was never sure if it was familial or emotional.
The western angle on the Snow White story is a new one to me, and a non-white Snow White is a clever twist. And this Snow, for all her adherence to the plot formula, directs her own fate. She becomes the central character of the story, not just its victim. This is no damsel summoning woodland creatures with her innocence. This Snow White carries a gun, and doesn't hesitate to use it when she needs it.
Despite the many, many Snow White retellings, this one manages to stand out from the rest. I don't know if I'd call it my favorite, but it is compellingly written, with an excellent sense of character, motivation, and the importance of the essential symbols, like the mirror and apples. This didn't win the Hugo, but now I'm really intrigued about the novella that did.
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