Love is the color of blood. Love is what grown folk do to each other because the law frowns on killing…
I read the description for Six Gun Snow White on Goodreads: “…Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West…” and thought, oh well, I’m not much of a fan of Westerns, maybe I’ll just pass on this one. And then I laughed and laughed, and bought the novella anyway. I haven’t read even one story from Catherynne Valente that I haven’t liked; I think she could write the labels on sugar packets and I’d still want to read them. And if this had been just a simple translation of the Snow White fairy tale into the Old West (substitute six-shooters for swords, outlaws for dwarves, and make everyone wear period clothing), it still would have been a fun read. But this is Valente, so the end result is much, much more complicated.
The first thing that hits you is the style. Most of the first half of the book is told by Snow White, and then it switches to a third person narrator. Both have a folksy, down-home western tone. Phrases like “on the quick” and “won’t make it any more your nevermind” are scattered throughout. It’s surprisingly appealing. The chapters are all fairly brief – some of them only last a sentence or two – and the chapter headers echo the titles of Native American folk tales: Snow White Deals the Dead Man’s Hand, How Snow White Got Her Cunning, Snow White Wears the Sun.
I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself or Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness. Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at?
The story itself starts out settled comfortably into the original fairy tale, with a few changes (the Indian tribe of Snow White’s mother is bullied into giving up their most beautiful young woman for marriage to a rich prospector, and then it’s Snow White’s father who prays for a child with white skin). Valente then sets the tone for the rest of the book at the start of Snow White’s relationship with the beautiful, terrifying woman her father brings into the house when he remarries. Don’t look for a romance with a handsome prince; in this story it’s Snow White’s stolen Appaloosa that’s named Charming, and Snow White herself spends half her time dealing with the hardship of being a woman when men have all the power, and the rest of the time trying to get over the need to be loved by her evil stepmother. Or by any mother. Snow White herself refers to that whole part of the story as “boring”, dismisses any hope for being the perfect lady her stepmother tried to beat her into (her name itself is a cruel joke by her stepmother: the one thing she will never be), and then sets to drinking and punching her way across the American West.
And then the ending…well I’m still not sure what I think about the ending. I’ve had the same problem with the last few of Valente’s books that I’ve read. Her writing is the closest thing you can get to poetry and still be prose, and sometimes the lovely phrases and fantastical images and attempts to make music on the printed page all combine and go right over my head. In this novella the ending feels oddly disjointed. The story gets to a recognizable point from the original fairy tale, takes a complete left turn, and then just ends with a cryptic phrase and not a lot of actual resolution. It doesn’t interfere with how much I enjoyed the rest of the book, but sometimes you ask, “And then what happened?”, and the answer doesn’t really satisfy. Even when it’s beautifully told.
There’s one extra part that I really enjoyed, but probably not the way the author intended. The stand-in for the huntsman in this version is a nameless Pinkerton who’s hired to hunt down the runaway Snow White and bring back her heart. If you need an extra treat, you can imagine the Pinkerton’s part in the voice of Malcom Reynolds from Firefly. You’re welcome.