Catherynne M. Valente’s Six Gun Snow White is, as the title implies, a fractured fairy tale, a Snow White recast in the Western genre. The feminist elements are strong, but the best way to describe this fast-paced novel is Snow White meets True Grit. Consider their opening sentences:
“I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H. married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver. It don’t trouble me none if any soul calls me a liar.”
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
Can you tell which is which?
If you’ve seen the 2010 film adaptation starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and the talented Hailee Steinfeld, you may recognize the opening voice-over of the movie as the opening paragraph from the 1968 Charles Portis novel, reproduced here in the latter paragraph above. Six Gun Snow White creates a stronger, harder Mattie Ross, a young woman who over the course of several years (instead of the few months’ journey of Portis’ book) travels from innocence to experience.
Snow White is a half-native woman whose mother was forcibly taken from her tribe and who died giving birth to Snow. The stepmother Mrs. H hates her for many reasons, not only for her beauty, but also her mixed heritage. Racism is real in this fairy tale, and Mrs. H tries to bleach her skin white by making Snow White bathe in milk.
Her gun Snow White calls Rose Red. The huntsman sent to track her is a Pinkerton detective. Her horse she has named Charming. The ‘dwarves’ are seven outlaw women living in a makeshift town in Montana Territory, outcasts from society who form their own ‘feminist collective’—not that they would ever call it that.
The first enchantment: a poisoned cigarette, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revives her.
The second enchantment: poisoned whiskey, and the gag-reflex saves her.
The third enchantment you will have to read for yourself, but it is entirely fitting if unexpected ending. No savior prince, as you might expect from this modern retelling, but a more-or-less happily-ever-after all the same.
The tone is flawless. The language is precise, perfect, heartbreaking. Snow White informs the reader that “a stepmother is like a bullet you can’t dig out” (38) and the outlaw ladies tell Snow, “Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone” (105). The author maintains a breathtaking control of language.
When Snow White runs away, she thinks, “Fuck that mirror and fuck that house.” (67). I was surprised and delightfully shocked by the unexpected profanity; if the reader didn’t realize it before, this ain’t no fairy tale.
I am myself an emotional orphan, and Valente exquisitely expresses the longing for a mother who loves you. One of the outlaws tells Snow White: “You’re grown—crooked and backbent, but grown—and it’s time to stop hanging your heart on your mother” (111). [I cried here.]
The novel also captures the flavor of Native American folklore in the chapter titles such as “Snow White Secures Fire” and “Snow White’s Stepmother Gives Birth To The Sky.” At 153 pages, this is a quick read. Periodic illustrations by Charlie Bowater add to its appeal, and like a good children’s picture book, the illustrations collaborate with the text in telling the story.
This a beautiful book, and every fairy-tale aficionado will want to read it.