Monday, March 17, 2014

2014 Nebula-Nominated Novella reads...SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

Free Online Excerpt
Saga Press
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Valente’s adaptation of the fairy tale to the Old West provides a witty read with complex reverberations from the real world. Snow White is the daughter of a Crow woman abducted and forced into marriage by an unloving white magnate called only Mr. H. She gets her name in mockery, as white is “the one thing I was not and could never be.” When her father remarries, Snow White’s glimpse into the second Mrs. H’s mirror suggests they share the yoke of female subservience, but the two are inevitably at odds—so the young woman dons a man’s clothes and, like Huck Finn, chooses the “Indian Territory” that so frightens Mr. H’s world. Enter a pursuing Pinkerton’s detective, a pony named Charming, seven kick-ass outlaw ladies, and a variety of showdowns as Snow White searches for meaning, love, and a semblance of belonging. Any attempt to derive a simple message from this work would be an injustice to the originality of the atmosphere, the complexity of the interplay of its elements, and the simple pleasure of savoring Valente’s exuberant writing.


Saga Press Says: Forget the dark, enchanted forest. Picture instead a masterfully evoked Old West where you are more likely to find coyotes as the seven dwarves. Insert into this scene a plain-spoken, appealing narrator who relates the history of our heroine’s parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. Although her mother’s life ended as hers began, so begins a remarkable tale: equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, this is an utterly enchanting story…at once familiar and entirely new.

My Review: Wow.
Flush and jangle with silver and possessed of a powerful tooth for both spending and procuring more of whatever glittered under the ground, Mr. H traveled to the Montana Territory on a horse so new and fine her tail squeaked. He disliked to travel in company, being a secretive man by nature. Mr. H had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up. The notion of a sapphire rush brewing in the Beartooth Range pricked up the north of that comstock-compass stuck in his heart. All the way out in San Francisco he felt the rumble of the shine.
And off we go.

I've said before that Valente is a favorite phrasewright of mine, and I've read enough of her books to know that she and I share a taste for the image that strikes the tiny knife-edge balance between lush and purple. I know also that her storyteller's eye is unerring, and that her vision of what makes a story worth telling is 20/20. She loves the stories that underpin the bland-, the dry-, the melba-toasty-ness of modern literature. The fairy tales, the myths, the folk stories that kept folk enraptured as the details piled up, and the words wove their nets, and the piles of details fell on you and knocked you into the wordnet and the storyteller, with that unerring eye, shot you through the heart with an ending.
Mr. H encountered the woman who would be his first wife by chance alone. She turned up like an ace of spades in the general store, trading elk meat for cotton cloth and buttons. Her brother, who had shot the beast, escorted her. But the girl did the bargaining. She had good English and did not like the owner of the general store.

The terrible covetous heart of Mr. H immediately conceived a starvation for the girl not lesser in might than his thirst for sapphires or gold. In the lamplight her hair had the very color of coal, plaited in two long braids and swept up at the brow into what I have heard called a pompadour. Her dark mouth was a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true. She looked over her shoulder at him and her body hardened to run if such became necessary. Mr. H took this slight stiffening as a sign that his feeling was returned.
And thus The End. Wait, what? This is the beginning! Ah yes, well observed. The beginning of a finely crafted story is also the ending, both of itself and of the earlier story that precedes the story, because there is no beginning and there is no ending. Except in stories. And never in stories.

So it's there, in the space defined by the story and its ending and the ending and its story, there is where Valente writes her beautiful sentences and tells her well-made tales and gives the reader whose heart hasn't sized itself down to hold only the ghostly, pallid, dust-flavored ephemera of "reality" a chance to exult in landscapes that even physics is finally catching on to. Go look up the myth of Indra's Web and then watch The Elegant Universe if you think I'm blowing smoke.
By now I expect you are shaking your head and tallying up on your fingers the obvious and ungraceful lies of my story. Well, I have told it straight. A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood which is its history. My body is my truth...
So many more. Many phrases speaking truths I knew but didn't know I knew, and plucking bright moments from the stream of consciousness that is all of life. I could, I suppose, copy-and-paste the whole novella excerpt here as a kind of meta-review, a review that reviews by simple mirroring. I think they call it plagiarism, though, and there are lots of folks who frown mightily on that, not least (I feel morally certain) Author Catherynne M. Valente, owner of the copyright to these quoted words. But believe me when I tell you that, unless there is no lock inside you that, when properly keyed, opens a door into the icy hot bath of wonder, you'd like it best if I said nothing and Valente said it all.

Why, since I'm blowing big and hot like Old Faithful, am I not giving the excerpt I read five whole, shiny stars? Why deduct that parsimonious, pursey-mouthed tenth of a goddamned star? Because, as beautiful and as delightful as the reading experience was, I am happy and I am refreshed but I am not looking at the world through altered eyes. The fifth full star is for books that mark changes in my life, delivered by them. I give comparatively few five-star ratings because there aren't that many moments in a normal, non-schizophrenic soul's life.
Once, I took a bead on a seagull and shot it plumb out of the sky. I did not expect to come close to it. As soon as it dropped down toward the sea my heart fell through a hole in my chest. I looked for the bird all over the meadowy grass, crying miserable. The sun set my tears to boiling. I talked myself into the notion that I would find the seagull wounded through the wing and keep her and mend her and teach her to love humans and live in a house. She would help me and bring me fish and be my companion. She would sleep in my bed with her soft head against my shoulder.

I found the poor bird down at the bottom of a green hill. I had put my bullet straight through her black eye.

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1 comment:

  1. Dadgabbit, Richard, another book bullet, straight through the heart, or the eye, whatever!


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