Six-Gun Snow White: A Victim’s Trickster Tale

February 27, 2013 § 6 Comments

It’s a real shame that neither of Hollywood’s big-budget Snow White adaptations could boast Catherynne M. Valente on their writing staff.

Too often, in the ouvre of fairy tale adaptations, we’re told that we’re going to see something new—the tale like it’s never been told!—and what we end up with instead is the same shlock, with better CGI. The art of the creative, thoughtful, and powerful fairy tale retelling is a quiet one that thrives less in Hollywood studios than it does in literary magazines, YA publishing houses, and small presses like Subterranean. If you, like me, gagged on your popcorn when Mirror, Mirror’s Snow White was told by the prince that she tastes “like strawberries,” then get thee to Subterranean Press’s site, and don’t balk at the $40 price tag of Valente’s limited edition of Six-Gun Snow White, because in its pages you’ll find all the beauty and sorrow that got left on the cutting room floor of last year’s feature films. Infused with Native American trickster tales and Spaghetti Western dudes, this retelling is less of a stretch than you might think—in fact, it’s an adaptation that transcends its patchworked nature, strips the archetypal characters to their raw human bones, and reveals the true beating heart of the fairy tale.

sixgun-snowwhite

Cover illustration by Charles Vess

In Six-Gun Snow White, Snow White is the cruel nickname given to the daughter of a silver baron and his first wife by his second, the proverbial stepmother. Snow White’s tragic mother was a Crow Indian woman who was forced into marriage with Mr. H, and who, after a failed suicide attempt, dies giving birth to the half-breed Snow White. Snow is kept a secret from Mr. H’s second wife, a pale and beautiful white woman who, once she finally meets Snow, makes it her terrible mission to teach Snow about beauty, womanliness, and whiteness. Snow White’s brown skin is the marker that makes her different from her stepmother, and it becomes her curse when she takes off from home in her father’s clothes with her pistol, Rose Red, by her side.

Though in Mrs. H Valente gives us enough dark magic to satisfy readers’ tastes for the supernatural, Six-Gun Snow White emerges less as a fantasy story and much more as a tale of abuse and scarred survival. Wronged women wait in every corner of this novella to tell their stories, from Mrs. H herself to Snow’s Crow mother, to the seven hellions of Oh-Be-Joyful, a colony of female runaways where Snow lands after lighting out across the desert. Snow White herself transforms from bewildered child with a first-person narrative voice to a hardened, silent figure with the aura of a hunted dog. She narrates the first third of the novella with a charming western twang to her phrases, and we know her so much better in these chapters than we do later on, when an omnipresent narrator with no less of a personality takes over to tell the remainder. This is an odd choice, given that the two voices are nearly indistinguishable as far as style, and I wondered if the novella wouldn’t have been better served by sticking with the omnipresent narrator throughout, if only so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to miss seeing the story unfold through Snow’s eyes. But this distancing from Snow does work to characterize the hardening that takes place in her. By the end of the novella, she’s a difficult woman to know, more inclined to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. She’s killed one man and come to blows with many others, and is always aware that no matter how far she might ride, her stepmother will eventually find her. When her death comes for her, she greets it like a tired, beaten thing, and eats the apple knowing full well what sits under its skin.

The most surprising pleasures from Six-Gun Snow White lie in the women of the tale who are not Snow or Mrs. H: Snow’s dead Crow mother and the women of Oh-Be-Joyful. In a story that has always been about woman-on-woman violence between two archetypes, here we see a chorus of women survivors, each with a haunted past. They widen the lens of violence on women in the story away from the old archetypal characters and towards a more rounded view of femininity and victimhood. Snow White develops a seemingly lesbian relationship (sex is never made explicit) with the leader of Oh-Be-Joyful, Bang-Up Jackson (“cattle rustler with a face like a hoofprint, dead shot, boss lady with hounds at her feet and the sun at her back”). Bang-Up and the other women of Oh-Be-Joyful protect and comfort each other, and keep watch over their fragile colony in the form of two tongueless sisters who trade shifts at night, holding three guns each. It’s in this finite place of female protection and comfort where Mrs. H finds Snow White, and comes to her not as an old crone as the stories have been told in the past, but in the form of her dead mother, the only person in Snow’s life whom Snow has hunted, instead of the other way around.

And here I’ll stop. My instinct, when it comes to Valente’s work, is to unload and tell you everything I loved about it, but I’d have you here much longer than you intended to stay. I’d have a hard time, too, explaining the depth and touching vulnerability of this fantastic, dark novella without clouding your own reading of it, which you should. Now. Don’t let last year’s failures force you to give up on Snow White for good: Six-Gun Snow White is a trickster tale with heart and sorrowful transformation, and it blows other recent Snow Whites away, with only the click of a pearl-handled trigger.

Lucky, lucky you: there’s an excerpt available here.

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