There is a penchant today for writers to take classic stories of the past and re-write them, subverting any perceived or real underlying political values by replacing them with early 21st century, liberal/progressive views. Good writing a natural act of rebellion in many cases, many of these stories have caught the attention of political-minded readers. One of the strongest representatives of this penchant, and having become something of a poster child how to go about deconstructing older fiction, is Catherynne Valente’s novella Six-Gun Snow White (2013).
Feminist fairy tale set in the Wild West, Six-Gun Snow White maps the familiar Disney story onto America’s 19th century from social, cultural, and gender perspectives. Born of a forced marriage between a rich, white land owner and a beautiful Native American woman, Snow White grows up with one foot in both worlds. But when her mother dies and her father re-marries a prudish East coast woman, the teenage girl is forced to put both feet on the white side. The expectations eventually becoming too much, something has to break. And break it does for young Snow White; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Valente’s diction is in general a thing of glee and reverie, and in Six-Gun Snow White she tunes in to Wild West radio, channeling the Yee-haw style of the era’s stories without sacrificing her own. A delightfully dynamic read from a prose perspective, the reader can hear the stagecoach, saloon, and spittoon without actually being shown them, just as the exuberant proliferation of language that is Valente’s own is there for readers to enjoy. The Wild West comes alive through the groundwork of the classic Disney tale. (It’s worth noting, the “seven dwarves” are absolutely worth the wait.)
The first draft of this review had me criticizing Valente’s choice to feed her Wild West engine with Coyote fuel; the rivers of tone and technique are sometimes muddy for it. But the more I dug into the criticism, the more I realized the Coyote fuel is in fact a necessary ingredient to Valente’s retelling. It becomes a more complex palette of flavors to be sampled for sure, but lingering longest is the manner in which Coyote jives with Snow White’s ancestry, strengthening the cultural side of the story’s political aims in the process. More specifically, the idea of Coyote provides a colorful, substantive backdrop for the young woman’s development, and the metaphors which come to life provide a nice counter-point to the young woman’s Western (sorry for the pun) upbringing. Yes, the reader will be parsing where and when Valente parallels the Disney fairy tale and when she deviates from it, and on top of this are thrown the metaphors inherent to (assumedly) Crow mythology. But when all is done and dusted, the mix is true to Snow White’s character in the novella, making for a story with true heart.
If there were anything left to criticize, one item would be the lack of broader historical knowledge. Whites of European descent indeed conquered America and treated Native Americans poorly, but it was only after centuries of warfare and atrocities among the Natives themselves. In other words, it’s only that the whites were better armed and more organized. Otherwise, each side possessed/s equal quantities of the ingredient known as “the human condition”, including its penchant for war, conquering, sugar, et al. Give Earth a few centuries and we’ll see who the oppressor and oppressed are on the continent known today as America, such things fleeting in the eye of time. (Does that absolve whites? Well, that is a whole other can of worms not to be addressed in this review.)
In the end, Six-Gun Snow White is a strong, aggressive story, rich with metaphor and imagery from a variety of sources—the Wild West, Disney, and Coyote mythology. Valente’s politics front and center, the substance beyond—plotting, style, and technique—are drop dead gorgeous. No matter right, left, or center, the young woman’s tale is inspiring and motivational; indeed, all change begins with individual choice to do something different. Whether or not the need for change has a foundation in atrocities committed by whites/white males is another discussion.