Six-Gun Snow White
by Catherynne M. Valente
Cover Artist: Charles Vess
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596065529
Date: 31 January 2013 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Almost all of Catherynne M. Valente's writings engage with myth and fairytales in original and thought provoking ways. In her latest novella, she takes on the classic tale of Snow White. The mash-up of western and fairy tale is already an original take on the tale, but Valente's retelling is far more than just a new setting for an old story. Valente probes the heart of the Snow White story, exploring the themes of family and betrayal, and also bringing out to the light the more problematic elements of the original fairytale, re-contextualizing them to provide a feminist, and humanist, take on the story.
In Valente's tale, Snow White is a half-breed child of a white man and a native American woman who he coerces into marrying him. Snow White is a name bestowed in mockery by her stepmother, reminding her of her inferiority due to the color of her skin. The relationship between Snow White and her stepmother is one of the most interesting elements of the story. The jealousy that motivates the evil stepmother in the original fairy tale is present, although not based on a vain desire to be the "fairest of them all", but it is combined with a complex mix of self-loathing and twisted affection, creating a fascinating psychological portrait that engages with the problematic views of femininity in the original tale.
Valente explores the dynamics of abusive family relationships, creating a much richer story than the simplistic evil stepmother dynamic of the traditional telling of the fairytale. Snow White is a more active character, running away from home, learning to shoot and to defend herself, but still haunted by a longing for the loving family she has never known. Valente also drastically changes the ending, in ways I won't reveal, but suffice it to say that no Prince Charming rides in on a white horse to save the day.
The one complaint I have is that this story feels a bit compressed in places. I am a huge fan of the novella length, it offers unique opportunities for storytelling. However, there is so much going on in this story that it could use a bit more room to breath. In particular, a subplot about Snow White's brother, sent out to track her down and bring her heart back to his mother, is interesting but not fleshed out enough to have its full impact. Snow White's transition from child seeking approval to run away living on her own is also handled a bit too quickly for my taste.
In this book, Valente succeeds in the difficult double task of extracting and deepening many of the themes of the original fairytale while at the same time criticizing and transcending its sometimes patriarchal assumptions and messages for women. This is a respectful engagement with the fairytale that refuses to ignore the more problematic elements of the story. When combined with Valente’s poetic, beautiful prose and her talent for complex character's, whose damaged psyches are both intricate and deeply familiar, the result is a standout story.
While I wish it were a bit longer in places, I enjoyed every moment of this story, and recommend it wholeheartedly.