Boy, Snow, Bird

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As seen on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, where it was described as “gloriously unsettling… evoking Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe, Gabriel García Márquez, Chris Abani and even Emily Dickinson,” and already one of the year’s most widely acclaimed novels:

“Helen Oyeyemi has fully transformed from a literary prodigy into a powerful, distinctive storyteller…Transfixing and surprising.”—Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)

“I don’t care ...

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Boy, Snow, Bird

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As seen on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, where it was described as “gloriously unsettling… evoking Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe, Gabriel García Márquez, Chris Abani and even Emily Dickinson,” and already one of the year’s most widely acclaimed novels:

“Helen Oyeyemi has fully transformed from a literary prodigy into a powerful, distinctive storyteller…Transfixing and surprising.”—Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)

“I don’t care what the magic mirror says; Oyeyemi is the cleverest in the land…daring and unnerving… Under Oyeyemi’s spell, the fairy-tale conceit makes a brilliant setting in which to explore the alchemy of racism, the weird ways in which identity can be transmuted in an instant — from beauty to beast or vice versa.” – Ron Charles, The Washington Post

From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox, the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Porochista Khakpour
…gloriously unsettling…As usual, the Oyeyemi foundation is located in her fairy-tale comfort zone—in the case of Boy, Snow, Bird, the fairy tale is Snow White. She uses the "skin as white as snow" ideal as the departure point for a cautionary tale on post-race ideology, racial limbos and the politics of passing. It feels less Disney or German folklore and more Donald Barthelme's 1967 novella Snow White, in which the political and the social poke through the bones of a pretty children's tale, alarming us with its critical cultural import…Still, the greatest joy of reading Oyeyemi will always be style: jagged and capricious at moments, lush and rippled at others, always singular, like the voice-over of a fever dream…Oyeyemi picks myths and fairy tales because she sees the blood and guts behind the glitter and ball gowns. In essence she's a writer of rather enchanting horror stories…
Publishers Weekly
★ 01/06/2014
The latest novel from Oyeyemi (Mr. Fox) is about a woman named Boy; her stepdaughter, Snow; and her daughter, Bird. Set in the 1950s Massachusetts, the novel is a retelling of the Snow White tale that plays on the concept of “fairest of them all,” complete with mirrors as a recurring motif. The story begins with Boy’s headlong escape from her abusive father in New York City. She washes up in a small New England town where she meets Arturo Whitman, a widower who becomes her husband. When their daughter, Bird, is born, she is noticeably “colored,” though her half-sister, Snow (Arturo’s daughter), appears not to be. Boy, who is white, discovers that her husband’s family are African-Americans passing as white. Snow is sent away to be raised by an aunt, and the book’s middle section is narrated by Bird, who is as whip smart, wry, and irresistible as Boy. Oyeyemi wields her words with economy and grace, and she rounds out her story with an inventive plot and memorable characters. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Somerset Maugham Award winner Oyeyemi reimagines Snow White in 1950s Massachusetts, where a woman must grapple with the revelation that her husband and stepdaughter are black Americans who can and do pass as white.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-05
Readers who found British author Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox (2011) an intellectual tour de force, but emotionally chilly, will be won over by this riveting, brilliant and emotionally rich retelling of "Snow White" set in 1950s New England. Despite her name, Boy Novak is a 20-year-old young woman when she arrives in Flax Hill, Mass., in 1953 She has run away from New York's Lower East Side because her abusive father, Frank, a rat catcher by trade who has refused to tell her anything about her never-present mother, has threatened to treat her like one of his rats. In Flax Hill, Boy makes actual friends, like beautiful, career-driven Mia, and begins a relationship with Arturo Whitman, a former history professor and widowed father. Now a jewelry maker, Arturo lives with his little daughter, Snow, in close proximity to his mother, intimidating social matriarch Olivia. Not sure she loves him, Boy marries Arturo (whose quiet goodness is increasingly endearing to the reader and Boy) largely because she loves Snow, a fair-haired beauty who charms everyone she meets. But when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, the Whitmans' deepest secret is revealed—Arturo's parents are actually light-skinned African-Americans passing as white. Faced with how others view the difference between the sisters and influenced by some combination of overpowering maternal protectiveness and bad postpartum depression, Boy sends 7-year-old Snow to live with Arturo's dark-skinned sister, Clara, whom Olivia banished years ago. Growing up apart, Bird and Snow tell their versions of how Boy's decision impacts their lives. Then a startling revelation about Boy's own identity makes all three confront who they are individually and together. Dense with fully realized characters, startling images, original observations and revelatory truths, this masterpiece engages the reader's heart and mind as it captures both the complexities of racial and gender identity in the 20th century and the more intimate complexities of love in all its guises.
From the Publisher
“Gloriously unsettling…the greatest joy of reading Oyeyemi will always be style: jagged and capricious at moments, lush and rippled at others, always singular, like the voice-over of a fever dream.”
The New York Times Book Review 

“With her fifth novel, 29-year-old Helen Oyeyemi has fully transformed from a literary prodigy into a powerful, distinctive storyteller…[Boy, Snow, Bird is] transfixing and surprising.”
Entertainment Weekly

“The outline of [Oyeyemi’s] remarkable career glimmers with pixie dust... Her latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, continues on this bewitching path…the atmosphere of fantasy lingers over these pages like some intoxicating incense….Under Oyeyemi’s spell, the fairy-tale conceit makes a brilliant setting in which to explore the alchemy of racism, the weird ways in which identity can be transmuted in an instant — from beauty to beast or vice versa.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post  

By transforming ‘Snow White’ into a tale that hinges on race and cultural ideas about beauty — the danger of mirrors indeed — Oyeyemi finds a new, raw power in the classic. In her hands, the story is about secrets and lies, mothers and daughters, lost sisters and the impossibility of seeing oneself or being seen in a brutally racist world… [Oyeyemi] elegantly and inventively turns a classic fairy tale inside out.”
Los Angeles Times 

“Oyeyemi is something rare — a born novelist, who gets better every book. Boy, Snow, Bird is an enchanting retelling of Snow White that mixes questions of beauty and vanity with issues of race.”

“[Oyeyemi] is the literary heir of the late, great Angela Carter, a writer whose fiction glides from swirling archetype and folklore to the wised-up observations of a thoroughly modern womanhood.”
—Laura Miller, Salon

"This imaginative novel explores identity, race and family, arguing in brilliant language that black, white, good, evil, beauty and monstrosity are different sides of a single, awesome truth."

“Superbly inventive…examines the thorniness of race and the poisonous ways in which vanity and envy can permeate and distort perception.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“[Boy, Snow, Bird] explores powerful themes, such as self-perception, race relations, and the role appearance plays in relationships.”
Real Simple 

“Like Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter in the ’80s, and Jeanette Winterson in the ’90s, Oyeyemi has taken a page from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and inverted it, turning the malevolence of a reflecting gaze upon itself, and making it, possibly, amazingly, a positive thing. This — more than her narrative special effects — is the extraordinary feat of Boy, Snow, Bird. In her first four books, Oyeyemi wrote with the same chilly precision as Patricia Highsmith. The performance was mesmerizing, sinister, and creepy. With this book she proves an even great ability: she can thaw a heart.”
—John Freeman, Boston Globe

“Like Hitchcock, Oyeyemi is interested not merely in what happens when you attempt to pass for someone else, but in the porous boundaries between one self and another… [Boy, Snow, Bird is] an intriguing, sinuously attractive book.”
The Guardian 

“[A] rare contemporary novel that’s not afraid to confront race. It’s also the rare novel that isn’t heavy-handed or humorless while doing it… I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s remembered as one of the great passing narratives, one that stands proudly along Nella Larsen’s Passing and Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.

“Riveting, brilliant and emotionally rich…with fully realized characters, startling images, original observations and revelatory truths, this masterpiece engages the reader’s heart and mind as it captures both the complexities of racial and gender identity in the 20th century and the more intimate complexities of love in all its guises.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Oyeyemi wields her words with economy and grace, and she rounds out her story with an inventive plot and memorable characters.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This novel is some kind of wonderful.”

“Potent and vividly written…Oyeyemi is a wizard with metaphor…you haven’t got a pulse if you’re not shocked by the reveal at the end.”
NOW Magazine

“Defies classification…Oyeyemi isn’t just pulling the rug out from under our feet, playing with our assumptions about how people look—she’s holding a mirror up to our memories of fairy tales and of history...Stunning and enchanting.”

“Helen Oyeyemi is a freaking genius. Her books are so bizarre and brilliant… Write this one down somewhere you’ll remember – like your forehead – because you don’t want to miss it.”

“Incandescent…stunning…utterly enchanting.”
A.V. Club

“This is the novel that will get everybody to agree that Helen Oyeyemi is operating on another level, if they haven’t admitted that already. Bending and twisting fairy tales, Oyeyemi is capable of a sort of magic that will leave you gasping for breath.”

“Oyeyemi's [voice is] startlingly distinctive yet always undulating…[Boy, Snow, Bird is] a fresh, memorable tale.”
The Huffington Post

“Both exquisitely beautiful and strange… Oyeyemi casts a powerful light on the absurdities accompanying the history of race in America and the Western world, while taking us to the landscape of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She brilliantly raises the questions of what identifies us racially: Is it our color? Our genes? Our history? Our culture?...It is a powerful examination of the way we see others and the way others see us. And therein lies the beauty of Oyeyemi’s tale; we all are not, as Boy, Snow, Bird convinces us, what we appear to be, even to ourselves.”
Dallas Morning News 

Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, and it just might be her finest. It’s certainly her most readily accessible…. How [her characters] try and tragically fail to relate to one another proves particularly powerful, as exemplified by the perversely gratifying last act…I couldn’t have stopped reading at this point if I’d wanted to.… a beautiful book.”

The Barnes & Noble Review

Mirror, mirror on the wall, how does Helen Oyeyemi repeatedly bewitch readers? Even staunch realists fall under the spell of her haunting, fantastically imaginative novels, which entwine elements of fairy tale, folklore, and ghost stories with thorny issues like racial prejudice, cultural dislocations, and maternal ambivalence. The Nigerian-born British writer's Boy, Snow, Bird offers a twist on Snow White ? with shades of Cinderella as well — but don't expect Disney, or anything hewing as closely to the original as Donald Barthelme's postmodern Snow White, Gregory Maguire's Mirror Mirror, or Gail Carson Levine's Fairest.

With her fifth novel, Oyeyemi — still not yet thirty! — has shattered Grimm's looking glass, reflecting in its glittering shards an angelic, motherless girl named Snow, a jealous stepmother named Boy, and a mystified, questioning daughter and half sister named Bird — in a story about mothers and daughters, race and gender identity, and the many faces of beauty and evil.

As with Cathleen Schine's Fin & Lady, quirky names give Oyeyemi's book its intriguing but deceptively elemental title. Nothing is quite as it first appears in Boy, Snow, Bird. Her last novel, Mr. Fox (2011), which also bore a misleadingly simple title, was an exuberant tour de force that explored the complexities of love and the ambiguous relationships between writers and their characters in an elaborate, ever-shifting labyrinth of intertwined, surreal narratives. The result, which encompassed the legend of Bluebeard and West African Yoruba folktales, evoked a mesmerizing Haruki Murakami–like fugue state.

While it's neither as disorienting nor strenuously demanding as Mr. Fox nor as chilling as her Poe-inspired gothic third novel, White Is for Witching, there's more in Boy, Snow, Bird than meets the eye. The novel opens on a note grimmer than Grimm, plunging us into Boy Novak's dismal motherless childhood. Born in the 1930s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she grew up under the thumb of her viciously abusive father, a rodent exterminator (whom she refers to as "the rat catcher") who has filled his basement with cages of blinded, starving rats. Boy, who narrates the first and last thirds of the novel, sums up: "So that's Papa. Cleanest hands you'll ever see in your life. He'll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he'll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned." Pow!

Blonde-haired, fine-boned Boy explains that "No matter what anybody else said or did my father saw something revolting in me, and sooner or later he meant to make everybody else agree with him." Frank Novak's assaults escalate to the point where he's threatening to disfigure his daughter, so we're as relieved as Boy when she runs away at twenty, sending the narrative in a fresh direction. She catches the first bus out of town, which takes her to Flax Hill, Massachusetts. After struggling through some odd jobs, she lands in a local bookstore (a thriving enterprise in the early 1950s) run by a widowed Englishwoman who allows a trio of brainy "colored" kids to avoid the social torments of their newly integrated school by hanging around reading books off the shelves.

Boy quickly makes friends, including feisty Mia Cabrini, who is determined to buck marriage and motherhood and pursue a career in journalism that will expose bias toward blondes, prejudice against blacks, and "what someone goes through when they refuse to be a mother, or when they realize they just can't do it." Double- dating, Boy is paired off, inauspiciously at first, with a young widower named Arturo Whitman, a history professor turned jewelry craftsman. His beloved wife Julia, who "looked like a bashful Rapunzel," died after giving birth to their enchanting daughter. Snow, at six, looks to Boy like "a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at the utmost. She was like a girl in a Technicolor tapestry."

Names offer one point of access and toehold for contemplating craggy identity issues. Boy comments about hers: "I've always wanted to know whether Boy is the name my mother wanted for me, and if so, what kind of person the name was supposed to help me grow up into." Eventually, we learn its genesis but still can't help wondering why she never changes it. As for Snow: Boy learns that it was one of hundreds of monikers Julia had considered for her daughter, as if "trying to summon up a troop of fairy godmothers." White-as-the-driven notwithstanding, clearly this woman hadn't read her Grimm thoroughly. Finally, there's Bird, Boy's daughter, who narrates the beguiling middle section of the novel and offers plenty for book groups to peck at. For starters, she loves parroting others' calls and is charmed by her older half sister's gift, a white birdcage with a broken door, which promises "that its days as a jailhouse are done."

Mirrors present another angle on the book. Oyeyemi's characters are so confused about who they are that they literally can't see their own reflections. "Who are you?" they ask each other repeatedly. While I prefer to let readers discover for themselves the novel's surprising plot twists, (including a major one that is regrettably divulged in the book's jacket copy), I do want to flag Oyeyemi's fascinating focus on color bias among blacks, one of many forms of confused identity her story addresses. For me, this theme raised interesting parallels with anti-Semitism among Jews.

As in her earlier novels, Oyeyemi weaves together an enchanted mix of the natural and supernatural, the weird and the workaday. A few Britishisms and anachronisms—slimming, "on honeymoon," Fluffernutter (a term not coined until 1960, although the peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich was indeed invented in New England during World War I) — occasionally threaten to break the book's spell.

But it would take a lot more than anachronistic Fluffernutters to smear Oyeyemi's psychologically acute, haunting portrait of the lasting damage of Boy's woeful childhood. In this quintessential passage, Boy, still new to town (and freshly escaped from the rat catcher), is spooked by what seems to be a mirror image of herself while walking to work: "It was a windy morning, and the wind pushed me, and the road dragged me, and the tree branches flew forward and peeled back and broke away, and their scrawny trunks hugged each other. I glimpsed — or more became aware of — someone walking on the other side of the saplings." The doppelgänger, dressed in a navy blue coat just like Boy's, speaks with Boy's voice:

"'Hello? Hello? Is that you?"

We stopped walking. "I'm here, I'm here."

Shards of her face emerged through brown bark and greenish shadows. Her left eye was aligned with mine; we raised our left hands at the same time, and hers was bloody. She said: "I don't know what to do."
Writing like that casts a spell, all right. For more books of magical wonder, try Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox and White Is for Witching, Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, Toni Morrison's Beloved, or Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. And, for reasons that will become clear to you after you've read Oyeyemi's dark new dazzler, you might also want to check out Philip Roth's The Human Stain.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594631399
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/6/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 59,547
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently White Is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Boy, Snow, Bird. In 2013, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. She lives in Prague.

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Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

 Copyright © 2014 by Helen Oyeyemi


Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.

Mirrors showed me that I was a girl with a white-blond pigtail hanging down over one shoulder; eyebrows and lashes the same color; still, near-black eyes; and one of those faces some people call “harsh” and others call “fine-boned.” It was not unusual for me to fix a scarf around my head and spend an afternoon pretending that I was a nun from another century; my forehead was high enough. And my complexion is unpredictable, goes from near bloodless to scalded and back again, all without my permission. There are still days when I can only work out whether or not I’m upset by looking at my face.

I did fine at school. I’m talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I’d turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. “Has someone been . . . helping you?” I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops. I’ll take the appraisal of my male peers over that any day. Four out of five of them either ignored me or were disgustingly kind, the way nice boys are to the plainest Jane they know. But that was only four out of five. Number five tended to lose his balance for some reason and follow me around making the most extraordinary pleas and offers. As if some kind of bug had gotten into him. Female classmates got “anonymous” notes that said things like: So—I fall for you. Probably because I can see and hear. I see you (those eyes, that smile) and when you laugh . . . yeah, I fall. I’m not normally this sincere, so you might not be able to guess who I am. But here’s a clue . . . I’m on the football team. If you feel like taking a chance, wear a blue ribbon in your hair tomorrow and I’ll walk you home.

The notes I received were more . . . tormented. More of the “You’ve got me going out of my mind” variety. Not that I lost any sleep over that stuff. How could I, when I had a little business going on the side? Boys paid me to write notes to other girls on their behalf. They trusted me. They had this notion that I knew what to say. I just wrote whatever I thought that particular girl wanted to hear and collected dollar bills on delivery. The notes my friends showed me were no work of mine, but I kept my business quiet, so it stands to reason that if anyone else had a similar business, they’d have been discreet about it too.

When my hair started to darken, I combed peroxide through it.

As for character, mine developed without haste or fuss. I didn’t interfere—it was all there in the mirrors. Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty something. Suppose your father’s a rat catcher. (Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you’re a case of spontaneous generation.) The interior of the house you grow up in is pale orange and rust brown; at dawn and sunset shadows move like hands behind the curtains— silhouettes of men with Brylcreemed waves in their hair gathered on the street corner to sing about their sweethearts in seven-part harmony, the streetcar whispering along its track, Mrs. Phillips next door beating blankets. Your father is an old-fashioned man; he kills rats the way his grandfather taught him. This means that there are little cages in the basement—usually a minimum of seven at any given time. Each cage contains a rat, lying down and making a sound somewhere between twittering and chattering: lak lak lak lak, krrrr krrrrr krrr. The basement smells of sweat; the rats are panicking, starving. They make those sounds and then you see holes in their paws and in their sides—there’s nothing else in that cage with them, and all your father does to them at first is give them water, so it stands to reason that it’s the rats making the holes, eating themselves. When your father’s about to go out on a job, he goes to the basement, selects a cage, and pulls its inhabitant’s eyes out. The rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim. Your father puts three or four cages in the trunk of his car and drives away. He comes back late in the evening, when the job’s done. I guess he makes a lot of money; he does business with factories and warehouses, they like him because he’s very conscientious about the cleanup afterward.

So that’s Papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned. He does the same to his lady friend, who lives with you, until he starts going for her face. She’ll put up with a lot, but not that. One day she leaves a note under your pillow. It says: Look, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I’d say you deserve better. Take care of yourself.

You don’t get too upset about her departure, but you do wonder who’s going to let you bum Lucky Strikes now. You’re all of fifteen and you’re a jumpy kid. You don’t return people’s smiles— it’s perfectly clear to you that people can smile and smile and still be villains. One of the first things you remember is resting your head against the sink—you were just washing your hair in it, and you had to take a break because when your hair’s wet it’s so heavy you can’t lift your head without your neck wobbling. So you’re resting, and that clean hand descends out of nowhere and holds you face down in the water until you faint. You come around lying on the bathroom floor. There’s a burning feeling in your lungs that flares up higher the harder you cough, and the rat catcher’s long gone. He’s at work.

Where does character come into it? Just this: I’ve always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father— whichever option proved most practical. I wouldn’t kill for hatred’s sake; I’d only do it to solve a problem. And only after other solutions have failed. That kind of bottom line is either in your character or it isn’t, and like I said, it develops early. My reflection would give me a slow nod from time to time, but would never say what she was thinking. There was no need.

A couple of teachers asked me if I was applying to college, but I said: “Can’t afford it.” Actually, I was pretty sure that the rat catcher could, but I didn’t want to have that, or any, conversation with him. He hit me when one of his caged rats bit him. He hit me when I pronounced a word in a certain way that made him think I was acting stuck-up. (He told me that the difference between him and other people was that other people would think about kicking me in the shins only whenever I used a long word, but he went ahead and took action.) He’d hit me when I didn’t flinch at the raising of his arm, and he’d hit me when I cowered. He hit me when Charlie Vacic came over to respectfully ask if he could take me to prom. I seem to recall he began that particular beating in a roundabout way, by walking up to me with a casserole dish and dropping it on my foot. There was almost a slap-stick element to it all, I got a sudden notion that if I laughed or asked “Are you through?” he’d back off. But I didn’t try to laugh, for fear of coming in too early, or too late.

There were times I thought the rat catcher was going to knock me out for sure. For instance, the morning he told me to run downstairs and blind a couple of rats real quick for him before I went to school. I said NO WAY and made inner preparations for stargazing. But he didn’t really do anything, just pointed at my clothes and said: “Rats paid for those,” then pointed at my shoes and said: “Rats paid for those,” and pointed at the food on the table and said: “Rats . . .”

He imitated them: “Krrrr. Lak lak lak lak.” And he laughed.

The unpredictability of his fist didn’t mean he was crazy. Far from it. Sometimes he got awfully drunk, but never to a point where he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He was trying to train me. To do what, I don’t know. I never found out, because I ran away almost as soon as I turned twenty. I wish I knew what took me so long. He didn’t even hit me that night. He just sat in his easy chair snoozing after dinner, like always. I watched him and I woke up, I kind of just woke up. He was sleeping so peacefully, with a half-smile on his face. He didn’t know how rotten he was. He’ll never know, probably never even suspect it.

My feet walked me into my bedroom while I thought it over. Then I gave my mattress a good-bye kick. I didn’t pack much because I didn’t have much. There was only one really important thing in my bag: a flag that Charlie Vacic had wrapped around my shoulders once when we were watching the Fourth of July fireworks over at Herald Square. He said it was a loan, but he never asked for it back. Ever since he’d started at medical school people talked about him as if he’d died, but he was the same old Charlie—he wrote to me from upstate, and he mentioned the flag, and that night. I’d written back that I was still looking after the flag for him. It took up a bunch of room in my bag, but I couldn’t just leave it there with the rat catcher.

I did look for the key to the basement, but I couldn’t find it. Hard to say how much of a good turn it would’ve been to set those rats free after standing by while they’d starved, anyway.

Three times I opened and closed the front door, testing the depth of the rat catcher’s sleep, trying to make the softest click possible. The third time I heard him shift in the chair, and he mumbled something. The fourth time I opened the door I didn’t have the nerve to close it behind me, just ran. Two girls playing hopscotch outside Three Wishes Bakery saw me coming and hopped right out of the way. I ran six or seven blocks, the street one long dancing seam of brick and bicycle bells, hats and stockings, only stopping to turn corners when traffic lights wouldn’t let me pass. I ran so fast I don’t know how my pumps stayed on. A crosstown bus, then a subway ride to Port Authority. “Nervous” simply isn’t the word. I stayed standing on the bus ride, stuck close to the driver, looking behind us, looking ahead, my heart stirring this way and that like so much hot soup, my hands stuck deep in my pockets so my sleeves couldn’t be grabbed. I was ready for the rat catcher to appear. So ready. I knew what I’d do. If he tried to take me by the elbow, if he tried to turn me around, I’d come over all tough guy, slam my skull into his forehead. I stayed ready until I got to Port Authority, where the priority shifted to not getting trampled.

I really wasn’t expecting that kind of hullabaloo. If there’d been more time I’d just have stood stock-still with my eyes closed and my hands clapped over my ears, waiting for a chance to take a step toward the ticket counter without being pushed or yelled at. Folks were stampeding the last bus with everything they had—it was as if anyone unlucky enough to still be on the station platform turned into a pumpkin when the clock struck twelve. I tumbled into the bus with a particularly forceful gang of seven or so—a family, I think—tumbled off the bus again by way of getting caught up in the folds of some man’s greatcoat, and scuttled over to the ticket counter to try to find out just where this last bus was going. I saw the rat catcher in the ticket line, long and tall and adamant, four people away from the front, and I pulled my coat collar over my head. I saw the rat catcher get out of a cab and stride toward me, veins bulging out of his forehead, looking like he meant nothing but Business, I whirled around and saw the rat catcher again, pounding on the bus window, trying to find me among the passengers. Okay, so he wasn’t really there at all, but that was no reason to relax—it’d be just like him to turn up, really turn up, I mean, a moment or two after my guard came down. I saw him at least twenty times, coming at me from all angles, before I reached the counter. And when I finally did get there, the guy behind it told me it was closed for the night.

“When do you open up again?”

“Six in the morning.”

“But I’ve got to leave tonight.”

He was basically a jerk. “Jerk” isn’t a term I make free and easy use of. I don’t go around saying He/she/it is a jerk. But this guy was something special. There I was, looking right at him through the glass as I wept desperately, and there he was, petting his moustache as if it were a small and fractious creature. He sold me a ticket five minutes before the bus left, and he only did it because I slipped him an extra five dollars. I felt a bout of sarcasm coming on when he took the money, but made sure I had the ticket in my hand before I said: “My hero.” I was going to the last stop, on account of its being the farthest away—the ticket said the last stop was Flax Hill, and I’d never heard of it.

“Flax Hill? Whereabouts would you say that is?”

“New England,” my hero said.  “You’re gonna miss that bus.”

“Where in New England? I mean . . . what state? Vermont, or what?”

He studied me with narrowed eyes, selecting a nerve, the fat juicy nerve of mine he’d most like to get upon. “Or what,” he said.

He drew the blinds down over the counter window, and I ran. There were only two seats left on the bus—one beside an elderly man and one beside a colored woman who was sleeping with her head laid up against the window. The man smelled somewhat urinaceous, so I sat beside the woman, who opened her eyes, asked me if she should get up, nodded, and fell asleep again when I said no. She looked just about worn-out.

Across the aisle, a baby started screaming, and its mother bounced it up and down on her knees, trying to soothe it into good behavior. But the shrieking went on and on, primal, almost glad—this protest was righteous. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the baby was male or female; the only certainties were near baldness and incandescent rage. The kid didn’t like its blanket, or its rattle, or the lap it was sat on, or the world . . . the time had come to demand quality. This continued until the mother, who had been staring into space, suddenly came to and gave her child a particularly vicious look, along with a piece of information: “I don’t have a baby that acts this way.” The baby seemed taken aback, hiccupped a few times, and fell silent.

I held that talisman ticket of mine smooth between my hands right up until the bus pulled out of the station, even though deep down I knew there was no way the rat catcher could have figured out where I was. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that I’d leave the state. Maybe he wouldn’t look too hard. Maybe he’d just shrug and think, Well, that’s cut down the grocery bill. (Actually, I knew he would be murderously mad—I could almost hear him bellowing: “I’m a RAT CATCHER. No two-bit wretch runs out on me, even if she is my daughter!”) Don’t think of his face—Flax Hill, Flax Hill. With a name like that, it was probably the countryside I was going to. Moonlight, hay, cows chewing cud and exchanging slow, conversational moos. It was a scenario I felt doubtful about. But I was game. I had to be.

As pillows go, my bag served pretty well. I listened to the drumming of the bus wheels on the road, made a note that running away from home was as easy as pie once you’d made your mind up to it, and fell asleep with my limbs carefully arranged so as not to touch my neighbor’s.

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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2014

    I don't often rate a book with one star or with five. Their ar

    I don't often rate a book with one star or with five. Their aren't many that I find to be either poor or perfect. This book however had not one redeeming quality. I love a fairytale retold, and a darker adult twist makes them a guilty adult pleasure. But please save yourself the hours that I spent. There is no fairytale here. I would however, highly recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Book of Lost Things, and While Beauty Slept. These authors were much better able to coax a new twist to a very old story than Mrs Oyeyemi.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 6, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I received this book from the amazing LibraryThing in exchange f

    I received this book from the amazing LibraryThing in exchange for a fair and honest review.  

    Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is kind of like a modern day Snow White, but with lots of alterations.  The story is told mainly by Boy, who is actually a girl, who escapes from an abusive father and makes a new life in a small town in Massachusetts.  Boy marries and inherits a stepdaughter, Snow, who is pretty much the most perfect person ever.  But when Boy and her husband have a child of their own, a family secret is revealed that causes many of the family relationships to be strained.

    Boy, Snow, Bird is unique.  It’s part Snow White, part family secret, but it’s all worth the read.

    Have you read any books that have part of a familiar tale woven in?

    Thanks for reading, 

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2014


    I do not recommend this book. The story does not flow. The characters are not developed. The ending reads like the author got tired of writing and threw in a red herring at the end of the book just to finish it. This is one of the worst endings I have ever read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 8, 2014

    Thinking that the fairy tale aspect as well as the enigmatic ref

    Thinking that the fairy tale aspect as well as the enigmatic reference to mirrors would make it an interesting, even fascinating read, I quite eagerly started reading Boy, Snow, Bird. I'm sorry to say that I was rather sadly disappointed. Boy leaves her abusive parent for life in a small town and a marriage that seems to turn sour after a few years. Although Boy - really a girl - is a bit of a typical stepmother, her daughter, Bird, makes an effort to befriend her estranged stepsister, the beautiful and completely white, Snow.  

    Excellent classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Help notwithstanding, books concerning the color question have never been among my favorite reading material. The author uses the Snow White fairy tale to emphasize the color issue in this book—a clever ploy if stories about said color issue is within the reader's interest. 

    Unless the matter of both Bird and Snow not always appearing in all mirrors at all times is a metaphor for something, I simply didn't get that part of the story. I did, however, enjoy Bird's fascination with spiders. That, together with her upbeat, often hilariously funny, narrating voice during the middle part of the book, gave her an outstanding character. 

    Other characters like Mia, Boy's best friend, as well as both the grandmothers are unique and well fleshed out and contribute to the telling of this story.

    The weird, but wickedly unexpected plot twist right at the end, though criticized by many, actually redeemed this book for me. 

    Although this book is not for me, it is clearly an excellent literary work that retells the fairy tale of Snow White while skillfully and tastefully touching on the color question within families and communities in the sixties. (Ellen Fritz)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2014


    Indecisive of how I should word my review. It wasn't a bad book, not at all, however it could've been so much more. I was constantly questioning why Boy disliked Snow because unless I had skipped a page or chapter I couldn't find a single reason, then right when the book seemed like it could be going somewhere it ended. I wouldn't say DON'T read it, but I will say DON'T get your hopes up, you will be disappointed. The only way this book can come back and get 5 stars is if there is a sequel, and a hell of a sequel at that.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2014

    The Ending Killed the Book for Me

    The author has a wonderfully hypnotic writing style, which brought me along as she wove her story. However, the end essentially drops the floor out of the tale, and left me hanging, which ruined it for me. The three star rating is because up until the non-conclusion, I really enjoyed the book, curious as to what would happen next. If only the wrap-up had continued the magic....

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2014

    The premise of this book sounded good - the beginning started of

    The premise of this book sounded good - the beginning started off well, then...nothing.  The story felt very disjointed and i Wish that some had been told from Snow's perspective.  The ending, like others have said, seemed like the author was tired of writing and just.....
    Don't understand how this author gets such critical acclaim - I haven't read any of her other books, maybe I'll give them a try.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2014

    I wanted to like this book; I loved the premise and the possibi

    I wanted to like this book; I loved the premise and the possibilities it offered. However, I could not sustain any interest in the storyline and found it impossible to form any connection with the unlikeable, undeveloped characters.. I kept hoping it would get better, but it did not. I do not like to give up on a book, but 3/4s through this one I gave myself permission to close the covers and return it to the library. . It is a dreary and depressing book, not worth precious reading time. I cannot recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2014


    Sits down waiting

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted February 15, 2015

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    Posted April 18, 2014

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    Posted July 23, 2014

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    Posted October 18, 2014

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    Posted August 9, 2014

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    Posted July 8, 2014

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    Posted February 18, 2015

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    Posted June 25, 2014

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    Posted June 8, 2014

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