“Boy, Snow, Bird” was the first novel I read that combined modern day issues, such as domestic abuse and biracial families, and placed it in a decade most of us associate with malt shops, drive-in movie theaters and rock’n’roll music—the 1950s.
The book, written by Helen Oyeyemi, a British novelist and playwright, begins with a tragic story of a young woman running away from her abusive father and their home in New York.
Boy, the woman running away, is tough and determined and won’t let anyone but herself control her life. She’s very open when she describes the ways her father would harm her, such as when he tied her to a chair and let a rat bite her face multiple times in attempt to ruin her complexion. Luckily, Boy successfully escapes and ends up in a small Massachusetts town where she lives in a boarding house with many other young women.
Eventually, Boy marries Arturo Whitman, a town local, and with that marriage Boy becomes a mother to Arturo’s daughter, Snow. Boy learns Arturo’s first wife and Snow’s mother, Julia, died due to birth complications, but it is not until Boy has her own child that she learns the Whitman family has been hiding a shocking secret.
When Boy’s daughter, Bird, is born with dark skin and “woolly” hair, Boy and the nurses are confused. While the nursing staff continues to believe Boy must have had an affair, she learns that Arturo’s family is of African-American decent—and they had successfully kept it a secret.
As Bird grows up, though, she is treated differently by her grandparents and aunt. With a mixed child in the family, it is hard for any of them to deny their true identity, yet they continue to try.
The family tries to convince Boy to send Bird to live with her aunt in an attempt to regain the family secret, but Boy ends up sending Snow instead, presumably because Boy is jealous of the attention Snow, who is very light-skinned, receives from the family while she and her child are ignored because of the secret they released.
The book begins and ends with Boy’s point of view, while the middle section is told from 13-year-old Bird’s perspective. My favorite section of the book is Bird’s because the character uses different vocabulary and forms of communication (most of Bird’s story is told through letters she writes to Snow and vice versa), and it reminds readers what childhood is like.
Bird is an expert at using her imagination, and one of her greatest stories is when she talks to spiders in her room.
“Here’s something that happened a few months ago: I got curious about what the spiders in my room thought of Brer Anansi, or whether they’d even heard of him,” Bird writes in her letter. “I just wanted to know if he was a real spider to them. So one night when the house was as dark and as silent as could be, I sat up in my bed and whispered: Who speaks for the spiders?”
Bird continues telling the story in a letter to Snow, and the story shows Bird’s imagination and creativity.
Bird’s narration provides a young adult literature angle. Bird reminds me of Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Like Scout, Bird tries to describe everything going on, but she is still too young to understand all the issues her family and what the people around her are going through. Meanwhile, the reader is left trying to fit together all the missing pieces and search for answers Bird — and even sometimes Boy — does not have the answers to. But that is what makes this book enjoyable; it lets readers be detectives for awhile.