“Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless after everyone else has had their fill.”
Catherynne M. Valente
In one way, Catherynne Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White is exactly what it sounds like: a Wild West retelling of “Snow White” whose heroine is half-Native American, the daughter of a wealthy silver prospector who hides her away on his estate. The name Snow White is given to her by her father’s second wife: it’s intended to mock her, to draw attention to the one thing she can never be. Even riding across the country with a gun in her hand, she can’t escape the baleful influence of her murderous stepmother.
And, yet, in another way, this novel is doing some seriously heavy lifting with its fairy-tale trappings. One of the things I found myself wondering when thinking about it was what the role of the fairy tale is in the book: is it an end or a means? Is the book about “Snow White”; or is it just using “Snow White” to think with?
To consider the latter approach first: to me, our culturally preordained knowledge of “Snow White” seems absolutely key to the work the novel is doing. The story follows pretty closely the main beats of the fairy tale, which gives us a Boethian knowledge of exactly where the book has to go; it lends a certain tragic inevitability to it all, an inevitability heightened by the fact that the novel is narrated (first by Snow White herself, and then by a mysterious third-person narrator) in this amazing, cynical Wild West drawl of a voice, all world-weariness and hollow detachment. It’s a voice that says to the reader: “We’ve done this all before. You know what’s coming, don’t you?” Commenting on a lucky card draw which sees Snow White saved from the huntsman who comes after her, Our Narrator says sardonically:
Of course she cheated. Don’t be silly. Snow White spent half her growing years shuffling cards for no one. She can cut false and she can cut true, but she wasn’t going to lose when it counted.
Gilbert and Gubar contend that “Snow White” is essentially a cyclical tale: Snow White, having displaced her wicked stepmother, can only grow up to become her; can only prick her finger and bear a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as the windowsill, a child who will in her turn displace her, cruelty and abuse perpetuating itself, world without end. So Six-Gun Snow White is, surely, doing something with that idea; reading fairy-tale as ancient, inevitable, inescapable.
Let’s park that idea of inevitability for a moment and return to the first approach, the one in which “Snow White” is the subject of the book. One of the most obvious changes Valente makes to her original is introducing Snow White’s father into the equation; remember, in the story, the king is only there as a kind of idea, a device to bring Snow White and her evil stepmother into relation. Here, though, Mr. H is the originator of a whole lot of trouble. He desires a Crow woman, and blackmails her family into giving her up to him in marriage. His treatment of her is degrading and colonial:
Mr. H told it with pride that he taught her to read Shakespeare, even though she had English letters just fine already. He made her play wild Titania for him wearing nothing at all, not even violets. He instructed her in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer and the keeping of the Sabbath, and he got her with child.
That child, of course, is Snow White, destined to be dressed up like a doll (“he put me into calfskin and two long braids, which is how Crow girls dress”, objectified, exoticised, othered) or hidden away, until the arrival of Mr. H’s second wife, whose abuse of Snow White, her attempts to make her whiter and more womanly, is itself rooted in abuse:
This is what it means to be a woman in the world. Every step is a bargain with pain.
And her child, created by magic, appears half-deer half-boy: “a disappointment to his mother”. Mrs H sets him to hunting the runaway Snow White down, telling him that if he does so he’ll be “fixed” and she will love him. (She says the same thing to Snow White while trying to cram her into a dress she hates: “Do this thing and you can call me mama. Do this thing and you can have anything you want.”) He’ll be able to join the ranks of the successful – the straight, the white, the able-bodied, the men – by symbolically destroying that which is other. Remember, from Gilbert and Gubar again:
female bonding is extraordinarily difficult in patriarchy; women almost inevitably turn against women.
I think we can add to women turning against women: POCs turning against POCs, QUILTBAG people turning against QUILTBAG people, disabled people turning against disabled people. What Valente is doing here is revealing the extent to which “Snow White” erases the specific context from which its cycles of abuse arise by writing in the figure of the king/Mr H; revealing that the inevitability of those cycles is not a mystical prerequisite, a fairy-tale rightness to the world, but a product of a capitalist patriarchy which turns the disempowered against themselves to gain its approval. That this is invisible most of the time is, according to Valente, a symptom of how completely it has permeated our culture; it’s inevitable because we’ve erased it, because we’ve refused to examine it.
And yet: if Six-Gun Snow White is a story about the inexorability of powerlessness, it is also a story which resists that inexorability in small ways. Valente’s Snow White is gay, or bisexual: she has no (straight white able-bodied male) Prince Charming to wake her from her enchanted, objectifying glass coffin and make her into an evil stepmother. Instead, she sleeps, for a hundred years: “Snow White becomes an object”, Our Narrator tells us, a curio in an old museum; and she is woken not with a kiss but a crash – her glass coffin smashed against an elm tree in a flood, the museum forgotten, and she no longer on show for male amusement. She becomes a physicist, in fact: instead of being looked at, she looks:
She meets a history professor…She waves at the professor when she passes by his classroom. Waves through the little glass window. He puts up his hand to hers. Snow White decides to take him to dinner…The telescopes open up to the sky like gardenias at a wedding…Snow White discovers a new pulsar out in the Horsehead Nebula. She listens to it through machines that reflect her face.
The inward-looking mirror which enforces femininity has become a window, a telescope looking outward into the world; the male gaze becomes a female one, as Snow White eyes up a potential love interest. The refusal to conform to models of heteronormativity is a weapon as much as it is a curse: wielding it, Snow White manages to break that cycle of abuse and still come out triumphant.
Whoever’s left standing has won.