Sunday, September 08, 2013

Woman of the Wild West

I never got on the very well-populated Catherynne Valente bandwagon.  I picked up The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but didn't get beyond the first chapter; I can see why they love it, but it was definitely not for me.

I can't say that Six Gun Snow White is so very different, and I would call this a middling review that I'm about to give.  I finished it, because it was short and I wanted to understand a bit more of what the author was doing.  And I can't say it wasn't good--I think it was beautiful, and I think it might even be important.  This book is a poem--that's not quite a metaphor, I'm pretty sure there are definitions in which this book is a poem--and I struggled with it in the same way that I often struggle with poetry.

Snow White is the daughter of a rich white man, a very successful miner, and the Crow woman he coveted and bought/stole/took.  She's raised as his ward and maybe pet, until he marries again and her new stepmother tries...well, it's hard to explain.  It's the Old West, and there is magic, and a magic mirror.  The fairy tale is told in its setting, and things fit in lovely images into their places--the huntsman is a Pinkerton who is sent after Snow White; there are seven outlaw women who take her in and save her; there are apples and hearts aplenty.

Is there any place, any time, that is more intensely masculine than the Old West?  Anyplace with less space for women?  Knights had their ladies, and soldier are tended by nurses, write home to their girlfriends.  There is no place here for a woman, and certainly no place to see what a woman could be, what the good, healthy life that other folks are living looks like. There is  no sense of what is real and what is not, because everything is real and unreal at the same time here.  It's strange and like a fairy tale.

But this creates so much distance, I can't get close to the characters.  Snow White is in pain, but I can't tell you what choices she's making, what options she has.  If you think of it as the story of a half breed, with all the ugly exclusion and loneliness implied by that, you get a glimpse of it.  But this is about Snow White as a legend, as Coyote.

It's a poem, is what it is.  It might even be a good poem.  I hate it when people say "I don't really get that kind of book, so I'm not going to talk about it."  But I read this book, and I didn't get it.  I saw the feminism and the ideas of mothers and daughters, of whiteness and otherness, of womanhood crowded out by manhood.  I saw those ideas, those themes, couched in beautiful imagery.  But I don't know what the book was saying about these things.  I didn't get it.

I think it was a lovely poem.


Lianna Williamson said...

I too am not on the Valente bandwagon. I read Palimpsest and while it certainly had some intriguing imagery, it also got on my nerves for reasons I found difficult to articulate. This is probably the most obnxious thing I have ever said about any book, but as I was reading it I was thinking, "Man, this thing reeks of grad school. I'll bet you anything she wrote this as her MFA theis."

Laying aside my sour grapes that her MFA theis was actually published, the fact remains that despite all the glowing fangirl reviews I've read of her I have never felt the slightest desire to read anything else she's written.

LibraryHungry said...

I know exactly what you mean! It's very, very stylish--incredibly accomplished, actually, when it comes to style. But there's a real lack of humanity, a lack of connection with the characters. It's like reading an old fairy tale--archetypical characters, very clear good guys and bad guys--except that some of the traits are covered up with style. But there are no people here, only archetypes.

It's funny, sometimes when I don't love the same writers everyone else loves, I feel like I'm missing something. Here, I see just what they're gushing over; I just don't care for it.