Monday, June 01, 2015

Yet Another Reason to Read Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird

Given my interest in fairy tales and fairy tale re-visions, Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird was at the top of my summer reading list.  I'm so glad I read this slim, sly novel for so many reasons, but the one I'll put the spotlight on here and now has to do with the evocativeness of Oyeyemi's Hawthorne allusions.

At first glance, the scene where 13-year-old Bird and her 15-year-old friend Louis Chen team up to challenge the classmate who wrote "LOUIS CHEN IS A VIETCONG" in yellow chalk to fight them at "the corner of Pierce Road and Ivorydown" in Flax Hill includes what some might see as a fairly conventional Hawthorne invocation:
After ten minutes, we decided, with a mixture of disgust and relief, that Yellow Chalk Guy (or Girl) wasn't going to show, and we were ready to leave when three hefty boys from the eleventh grade showed up.  These three didn't take lunch money; they were less predictable than that.  They might stop you and give you a stash of comic books, or they might rip up your homework.  We knew their names, but never said them in case it made them appear.  One of them was directly descended from Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlet Letter; that one's mother had mentioned it at one of Grammy Olivia's coffee hours.  Mom says everybody immediately began to feel oppressed by their humble backgrounds because they'd forgotten (or didn't know) that anyone who's descended from Nathaniel Hawthorne is also a descendant of John Hathorne, the Salem judge who put just about as many innocent people to death as he could, so was it any wonder that Hawthorne was so good at describing what it felt like to be racked with guilt day and night. (182-183)
Bird's mom is Boy, and she and everyone in her family knows a lot about "what it felt like to be racked with guilt day and night," but she doesn't know that Bird and Louis are soon "caught in a circle of sniggering kids, without a single one of our so-called friends in sight," or that "the eleventh grader with the witch-hunter's blood," as Bird describes him, becomes the group's literal ring-leader, counseling "Patience, my friends, patience," as he refuses to allow the two friends to leave (183).  Fortunately, before they try to fight their way free, Grammy Olivia breaks the circle, leading Bird to reflect:
It put me in awe of Grammy Olivia's Saturday morning coffee hour, because that was part of the reason we went in peace--everyone's mother, aunt, grandmother, or great-aunt goes to Grammy Olivia's coffee hour.  Also Gee-Pa Gerald regularly plays golf with the Worcester's chief of police, et cetera.  Also Grammy Olivia's tone of voice offers you ten seconds to do as she says or the rest of your life to be sincerely sorry that you didn't. (184)
I won't go any further into this scene right now, because unpeeling some of its layers would give away too much of the characters' back stories and entanglements to avoid spoilers, but trust me that Hawthornean themes of family, descent, inheritance, and guilt invoked by this scene are at the heart of Oyeyemi's novel--in quite surprising and revealing ways.

And these themes carry over into the relationship between Bird and her older half-sister Snow, whose correspondence starts not long after this scene and eventually moves into trading stories (literally twice-told tales) about a figure they call La Belle Capuchine.  I'll skip the one Bird writes to Snow, which has a distinctly Chesnutt feel to it, and jump straight to the Snow's story, which might be read as a rewriting of "Rappaccini's Daughter," with a twist of "Earth's Holocaust":
La Belle Capuchine has a wonderful garden filled with sweet-smelling flowers of every color.  She plants all the flowers herself, and she tends them herself, and every single one of those flowers is poisonous enough to kill anyone who comes close to them, let alone picks one.  La Belle Capuchine is beautiful like her flowers, but she's a poison damsel.  She eats and drinks poison all day long and she can rot a person's insides just by looking them in the eye.  I don't think Mother Nature likes us much.  If she did, she wouldn't make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.  For instance, why does fire dance so bright and so wild?  It isn't fair.
So far La Belle Capuchine has ended the world seventeen times.  She does it by making her poison garden bigger and bigger until it's the only thing in the world.  After that she takes a nap.  But the world starts again from the beginning.  And every time a few days after the new beginning somebody comes across a beautiful flower and picks it.  That wakes La Belle Capuchine up, and then there's hell to pay.  I think we'd better get used to La Belle Capuchine, since she'll never be defeated. 
The End. (230)
Again, to close-read either this story or Snow's reading of it or Snow's reading of Bird's La Belle Capuchine story would be to give too much away to readers who haven't yet had a chance to enjoy Boy, Snow, Bird and its revelations for themselves.  So of course it's even more premature to use that close-reading to explore how and to what ends Oyeyemi is re-envisioning Hawthorne texts as much as she is re-envisioning "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty."

Consider this post, then, a promise to continue that exploration later!