Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
C.S. Lewis once wrote his goddaughter, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” It seems an odd statement at first, that one is ever not the right age to read fairy tales, but I think there is something truthful about that assessment. We read fairy tales to our youngsters, to teach them the way of the world, to be wary of strangers, that dragons can be defeated if you are brave enough, to keep your word and to guard your tongue. But after a while, the children grow up enough to go out and fight their dragons and they have no time to sit and read. It is only after the fight, while the burn marks are scarring over and the weight of broken promises rests heavy upon their shoulders, that they have time to come back and read these stories again, and find for themselves a deeper meaning that they wouldn’t have understood even if it had been pointed out to them as children.
Catherynne M. Valente has written a fairy tale for the burn victim, for the ones poisoned by false apples, bleached white by the burning acid of societal expectations, starved thin by the weak gruel of ambivalence. She takes the familiar tale of Snow White and sets it in the Wild West. Born to a successful miner and his Crow wife, Snow White is raised in a mansion in San Francisco. Her mother dies at her birth, and when he remarries a beautiful Boston Brahmin, she learns what it means to be a half-breed heathen in a Christian nation. As Snow White becomes more and more beautiful, her relationship with her stepmother becomes more and more brutal. In fact, I would put a trigger warning on this book for abuse victims. All the classic elements of the Snow White story are here — the evil stepmother, the huntsman, the seven dwarves — but reincarnated into a western setting that functions both as a backdrop and as a metaphor.
Valente has written a thoroughly engaging story that also works as a feminist warning of the dangers of societal values to women, their relationships with each other, and their relationships with themselves. The mirror that the stepmother brings with her, which shows no reflection but instead shows the full moon, serves as a multifaceted symbol. First, it stands for the tyranny of the male gaze and the importance of appearance, which is so fundamental to why Snow White is hated in this story. The idea of whiteness as purity and goodness is touched on so many times, both while Snow White (a name her stepmother gives her, a name she can never live up to) is at home, and after she escapes and makes a house of her own, endlessly whitewashing the floors. Its opposite, blackness, also shows up repeatedly, in her hair, in the coal dug from the soil that is used to buy Snow White’s mother as a wife, as the dirt washed off of the miners as they come up out of the ground and clean themselves as they return to civilization, as the surface of the magic mirror, “so full of dark it looked like someone had tripped over the night and spilled it all into that mirror.” The blackness of the mirror, of the magical power it holds, is held up in contrast to the whiteness of Puritan Christianity and its power to cleanse. Both are seen to damage and destroy the women who come in contact them.
The mirror offers a reflection, an opportunity to see yourself as others see you. Interestingly, the only place that Snow White has seen her reflection previously is in the silver handle of her revolver, Rose Red. The magical mirror is devoid of all adornment, unlike the vanity mirror on the dressing table in her stepmother’s room. Rose Red is also adorned with red pearls, gems that Snow White gains when she pleases her father. (She sees her reflection in one other place, but I don’t want to ruin the ending.) Snow White is a crack shot, a skill not usually possessed by women in her day. She gained this ability through playing at the little boardwalk her father had built for her, which was her one source of amusement since he totally ignored her. This escape from any sort of societal expectations gives her an important tool in her escape — the ability to feed and protect herself. It is in this place that her stepmother ensconces her mirror, intruding on her freedom.
Finally, the mirror reflects the full moon, even when the moon is not in the sky. Valente describes the moon as “hard and without poetry, stuck in the orbit of the thoughtless earth like a California pearl.” This is an interesting metaphor to examine because while it is easy to identify “the terrible eyeball of the moon” as being female here, held in orbit around a man, it’s harder to make the case that the earth is male in this story. Snow White would be that California pearl — raised in San Francisco and with her reflection decked with the red pearls of her father’s pleasure. Pearls also show up in the combs that the stepmother uses to tame Snow White’s hair and make it look civilized. Her father, an almost non-existent figure in the story, constantly gone in search of the next big find, spends his life taking from the earth — gemstones, silver, coal, whatever sells. The figure most intimately connected to the earth in this story is the stepmother.
There is a beautifully written scene in which the young woman who becomes Snow White’s stepmother takes the earth as a husband.
The loamy arms gathered Mrs. H. close in. A still pool opened up under her body like a bloodstain. The water shone clear and perfect as a mirror. For a second she floated on top of the pool, then it flowed up around her, up and over her skin and into her mouth, filling up all the empty places in her body and pulling her down into the starry slick of it. Under the surface her face looked so happy. But that’s not what I mean. I mean her face was happiness. Like her perfume was an emerald. Every time I seen a body take on joy in my life, it’s only been a shiver of that blue face in the dark wood, a little piece of her smile or her tears. When the water let Mrs. H. go, she came up dry as a prairie, wearing a dress the color of dirt. Green jewels like moss crowded the silk, silver jewels like rivers ran through it, red gems like poison berries wound around her hips and Mrs. H. was wearing the forest. She didn’t have a speck of mud on her. She had a ring on her finger with a chunk of rough green stone fixed into it.
It is here, in this mirror-like pool that Mrs. H. is transformed into something more than human, or at least different from human. She has struck a deal:
This is what it means to be a woman in this world. Every step is a bargain with pain. Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power. For the opposite of weakness, which is not strength but hardness. I am a trap, but so is everything. Pick your price. I am a huckster with a hand in your pocket. I am freedom and I will eat your heart.
The earth is male “with a stony hand” at least back in the Puritan east, an east which terrifies Snow White much more than the west. But both the east and the west refuse an easy opportunity for women, either Snow or Mrs. H. They both have to fight, making choices that aren’t really choices, just to survive. And that survival is regularly predicated on passing on the same hostility to other women in their cultures. Women can be physically abusive to each other, but much of the violence done is emotional and spiritual, and assumed by the culture at large to be done in competition for the attention of men — the terrible eyeball of the moon combines both the female hardness and male gaze into one inescapable object. Importantly, the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, a place of refuge for women who want to escape their stories, exists in the Montana Territory, and disappears once Montana becomes a state. Freedom for women literally can’t exist under that socio-political structure.
Six-Gun Snow White, like so many fairy tales, is metaphor upon symbol upon allegory. I just looked at the mirror symbolism, which touches on a lot of what goes on in this story, but essays could be written on the symbolism of the sun, moon, and stars, on the use of color imagery, on gemstones and metals, and whether the pearls that come from the water feature differently than the gems that are taken from the earth. And yet, as analytical as you want to be, this story works because at its heart (another symbol), it is an interesting story, beautifully told, which resonates with the truth that can only be found in fairy tales. I didn’t like the ending, because it wasn’t a “happy” ending, but the more I think about it, the more I can’t see ending the story any other way. It fits. Life isn’t happy. Scars don’t go away. But we learn to live with them. And if we’re lucky, we learn to find beauty in them, too.
Quotations are taken from an Advance Uncorrected Proof.