Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Hugo nom)
Posted July 21, 2014on:
I was maybe 20 pages in Six Gun Snow White when I wrote this in an e-mail to a friend: “spending the morning of my first vacation day reading Cat Valente’s “Six Gun Snow White”. the words are so pretty i am afraid if I touch them they will shatter into a million pieces and i will never hear the end of the story . . . e-book words will surely be flatter and soulless, they won’t respond to my petting. might be safer that way.” Those words on those pages, they were pretty, but they were also knife tip sharp, and with every page they clawed their way into me.
If you’re familiar with Catherynne Valente, you already know what she does with words. And if you’ve read other reviews I’ve written of her work, you might know what her words do to me. With every word I read, with every page I turn, a creature takes shape. Something that flies and dreams and takes me with it, a dragon made of velveteen words, and as you read those words, and caress those scales, the dream creature’s shape becomes clearer, this is what you’ve been looking for all this time. And the story is the breath of that dragon.
See? reading Cat Valente makes me talk in ways my vocabulary can’t support.
So, “Six Gun Snow White”. No dragons to be found here. Only a child who is forced to find her own way. Valente takes the traditional Snow White story, and plunges it into the American frontier, the mines of the Dakotas, the mythologies of the Native Americans. A white man takes a crow woman as wife, and a baby daughter is born. For reasons unknown but guessed, the man treats his own flesh and blood daughter as an adopted ward, a novelty native girl, someone the maid can dress in doe skin and trot out for visitors to view and ask “is she real?” “Where did you find her?”. The girl learns how to read, write, and be silent. The name she uses for her father is Mr. H. He doesn’t treat her poorly, or unkindly, he simply doesn’t treat her like anything at all. She doesn’t know any better, she thinks this is love. And then he gets married again.
The new wife, Mrs. H., sees this dark haired, dark skinned girl in braids and leather, and decides to make her into a true lady. Everything that makes the little girl what she is, Mrs. H destroys, even her name. To remind the child of everything pure she’ll never be, Mrs. H. bestows on her the name Snow White. And she doesn’t know any better, so she tries to tell herself that being treated like this is what love is. This is the point you’ll start to recognize the original fairy tale, and this is also where Snow (who doesn’t remember her own name) takes the story in her own hands and refuses to allow it to be told in anyway except hers. Mrs. H is a witch, and Snow can only take so much.
It’s fun reading authors who set their works in all places in the past and in the future. I’ve read a lot of Valente’s science fiction, I’ve read her historical fiction, her contemporary fiction, her YA. You can always hear her clear dulcet tones, but her voice always changes to fit the circumstances. and in “Six Gun Snow White”, her voice *really* changed, it was like seeing a whole new spectrum of textures whose names I didn’t know. Sentences are clipped differently, old fashioned terms and sentence structure, language both more formal and less formal than I’m used to. For example, very near the beginning of the story, when her father gives his daughter a child’s six shooter:
I could shoot that gun easy as spitting. The tin-gallery geese, the apples off the orchard trees. I named my gun Rose Red for them fancy cranberries nubbling up against my palm. . . My main observation of the matter of the opal was that it changed the weight of my gun, which did not please me.
Following the original Snow White story, Mrs. H. sends a hunter after Snow, to bring back her bleeding heart. He takes pity on Snow and brings back an animal’s heart. Mrs. H has use for that heart, and it’s the wrong heart, so she doesn’t get what she planned. Now she has even more reason to hate this child. And little does her stepmother care for what that wrong heart birthed. When you don’t know anything else, you think that’s what love is.
There are no jolly dwarves, but there are apples. Snow defends herself against men who would do her harm, and women who aren’t sure what to do with her. Once she has her life, she hasn’t much of an idea of what one does with their own life. When it comes time to defend herself against her wicked stepmother, well, as Snow likes to say “A body can only take so much”.
Damn did I love” Six Gun Snow White”. This is the first Hugo novella review I’m posting, but it was the last novella in the group that I read. I wanted to save it for last. I wanted to caress every page, I wanted it not to end. I read it very slowly, only allowing myself a few short chapters at a time. I’m pretty sure I was late to work a few times, reading in the morning, and saying to myself “just one more page, then I’ll stop”. Valente kinda does that to a reader, you know?
But wait, there’s more. “Six Gun Snow White” is as much an homage to Native American mythology as it is to a story about woman jealous of a child’s beauty. The chapter take many of their titles (or most? I should have done more research!) from Coyote stories, but instead of Coyote doing something, It’s Snow White doing something. For example, the chapter “Snow White Juggles Her Own Eyes” is slightly connected to the Apache Coyote myth “Coyote as Eye Juggler”, a chapter/story in which someone learns about how someone else sees the world. If Snow understands too much about her stepmother, she might have a moment of sympathy, which would be more dangerous than anything.
All those chapter titles cement a connection between Snow White and Coyote, but Snow is no trickster, nor is she sex-crazed. She’s the tragic side the story, the culture hero who battles a supernatural enemy and loses. Snow has learned the hard way that happy endings are more than she can afford. When true love comes knocking, a kiss is a drop in the bucket compared to her asking price. Anyways, I think she’s happy where she is. This world caused her nothing but hurt, why would she want to return?