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Book Club Reflection: Boy, Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

19 Sep

The day after I finished reading Boy, Snow, Bird, I was sitting in Starbucks writing my review and knowing I was heading to our book discussion. I always try to write reviews before my book club meets because, many times, that changes my feelings on the book. However, I don’t really feel much differently about Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after discussing it with my book club. Many of the others were caught off guard by the ending and how quickly it came about. We know that some of her fans like this, but we were frustrated and confused. We wished it would tie up nicely. The insight one of our members gave was that Snow was told she was going to live with her aunt for just a week and she never came back. If Boy is taking the girls away for ‘just’ a week, we don’t think they’re ever coming home. A few readers compared the book to The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, which we read about a year ago. I think it’s a fair comparison but if you read my review, you’ll see I wasn’t a fan of that book either. While some liked the book more after our discussion, I wasn’t one of them.

Newspaper reviews of this book were very positive. Many of us felt lost. There were several times we just didn’t ‘get’ what was going on and through our discussion, we realized it was because there were often several layers to the plot, comparisons we didn’t see, and thus what happened didn’t really make sense. We didn’t get deep as the reader wanted us to. The majority of readers missed the comparison to Snow White. Oyeyemi said she found the original Snow White an odd character because when she was sent to live with the dwarves, she seemed to be a ‘blank slate’ with little reaction to being sent away. I’d say Snow had slightly more emotions about being sent away, but now many.

There were times we felt the plot was a bit out of line from what we know of American culture in that era. Wearing the US flag, nose piercings, and hoolahoops didn’t seem to line up. The book covers three decades, so maybe we were a bit lost with what time it was. Maybe the author’s background made the US an odd choice for a setting. She was born in Africa and lives in Europe. What kind of research did she do in American culture for this book? Another thought was that she wanted it to feel like a fairytale and grounding the book in culture wasn’t important for that. It was better to create a utopia for the characters.

Some readers found the book hard to read because of the ugly reminders of real life. Sending away a child, parental abuse, and disliking a child or grandchild are ugly realities of the world we live in. The book spoke a lot about wealth, marriage, race, beauty, and motherhood, but it used ugly examples of human flaws to bring these up.

We wondered if the town ever realized Arturo and the Whitmans were black. The doctor at the hospital thought Boy had an affair. Did the rest of the town? This is never addressed head-on. Olivia continued to host her gatherings of neighbor women. Did they let go of their prejudices and include her or never accept that she was a black woman?

The snake seemed like an odd image through the book. The story Mia and Boy told each other involved a woman with a snake coming out of her heart. The woman couldn’t be changed by a magician. When Arturo gave Boy a bracelet with the same image, it struck us as an odd choice for someone he loved. Maybe, we thought, Arturo knew she was like the woman in the story and wouldn’t be changed when someone told her something to try to change her, like finding out her husband’s black.

We tried to reason Frank’s hatred for Boy. We think Frank had a dissociative personality disorder (spit-personality) and that while he was pregnant with Boy, he fluctuated back and forth between his masculine and feminine personalities. His male personality won in the end and despised everything feminine, possibly as a repercussion for the rape Francis suffered. In a hope to keep a daughter from being too feminine, he named her Boy.

Frank was looking in a mirror when he had his first break. The image continued on through the book. We felt that the reflection characters saw represented how they thought the world saw them. Boy thought the mirror was her friend because she felt isolated. Snow and Bird thought the world didn’t see them. Maybe this is because of the status of women in that time. More likely, it was because they felt the world overlooked them because they were black. The world would see them if they passed but once Bird was born with dark skin and Snow was raised by her black relatives, they weren’t passing, they were out and they were overlooked. We wondered how Olivia saw herself in the mirror.

The women in this book had polarized relationship. There was the wicked stepmother in both Olivia and Boy. Whereas Boy is described as so sweet and beautiful, she acts very harshly and wicket. The blonde hair of Boy and Snow’s dark hair are compared often, as is the angelic feminism of Boy and the tomboy attitude of Bird and Frank. Women were very key and central in the book while men seemed to disappear into the background.

I can’t find the page, but someone read a quote about Sidonie where she was described as not wanting to come inside the house (or store?) but how she didn’t want to stay outside. We thought this was a good analogy for how Clara, Bird, and Snow didn’t like the negative prejudice and discrimination of being black but didn’t want to pass as white either. They were in the middle, especially Snow, who could go either way depending on who she was standing next to. It was a battle of what was best for her and what was easy.

This wasn’t my favorite book, but few are. Our next selection has a slightly spooky/eerie theme to get us in the mood for Halloween. And best of all, it’s short.

Until next time, write on.

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