Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen
Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA
Summary: With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.
Type of adaptation: Historical recontextualization
So, let me tell you what I love about this book. I love how ambiguous it is. I love how seamlessly Jane Yolen has adapted this story in the superstitious subconscious that was early twentieth century rural American life. Because yeah, if you want to, you can read this book as if it’s saying that magic and witches and charms and curses are, in fact, real. But you can also read it in a completely different way, that the power of the charms evidenced in the story is nothing more than coincidence and superstition. This is a thing that I love about this book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our main character is a girl born to schoolage sweethearts who got married young by today’s standards, but not so much by the standards of the time in which they lived. And our main character’s mother loved fairy tales and folk tales, and so when her daughter was born with red skin and black hair and the white caul still over her head, she decided to name her Snow in Summer because she was reminded so forcefully of Snow White from the tales.
They call her Summer, and for a time, her life is perfectly happy. But then, when Summer is seven, her mother dies in childbirth and the baby dies with her, and her father becomes despondent and hardly able to look at Summer because she so resembles his dead wife. And the only reason life goes on for Summer is because of her Cousin Nancy, her godmother (and here’s another thing I love – giving Snow White a godmother. Because it’s almost the fairy tale as we know it. But not quite).
Nancy takes care of Summer while her father is too lost in grief to do so, because she loves the child, but also because she loves the father, and they get by, this strange, cobbled together family. They get by, and things are all right.
Until one day when Papa goes up onto the mountain and comes home with a bride, a civilized woman who no one really trusts. She is Stepmama, and she is the worst kind of villain because she preys and uses the desires that people had before she arrived.
Once Stepmama arrives in the story, she and Cousin Nancy both have their chance to speak, little interludes between chapters, and Yolen does this very well. In this instance, their voices help round out the story because Summer, called Snow by Stepmama, is a child, and she sees with a child’s innocence. But Cousin Nancy is an adult, and she sees what a child misses. And getting that insight into Stepmama’s mind helps us see just how villainous this woman truly is.
Because on the surface, she isn’t. On the surface, she might be a bit cold and distant, but she wants what’s best for Snow. She has to be stern because Snow was never brought up properly. She has to be strict because Snow needs guidance from a firm hand.
And really, what is heartbreaking about this is seeing Snow slowly start to buy into it as well. She is so desperate for a mother, and Stepmama shows her just enough tenderness and just enough love to make Snow want it all the more, and in time, she comes to believe that she is naughty and that she deserves to be asked to do the things her stepmother asks.
But through Stepmama’s interludes, we know that she considers herself to be a witch, that she learned the Craft at the hands of the only man she ever loved, that she is bringing Snow up to be a vessel, to steal seven years of her life and teach her the Craft when she becomes a woman.
Snow’s worst punishment comes when she goes poking around in Stepmama’s room and she discovers the mirror, a mirror with its own face, who will answer questions that are asked (okay, so maybe not everything can be explained away by superstition). Snow knows from the tales she’s read that questions of a magical nature have to be asked carefully and sparingly. And so the first question that she asks is whether or not she will ever see her mother again.
And here’s what I don’t like about this book: the mirror says yes, she’ll see her mother again twice. But she never actually does. It’s like this just kinda got forgotten by the time the story’s end rolled around, and that, unfortunately, is not a unique failing of Jane Yolen’s longer works.
Anyway, Stepmama catches her, and that’s when Snow’s life really becomes unbearable. She is forced to do all the household chores, and is punished when they aren’t completed well enough, and they never are. She is fed scraps and poorly clothed, and finally Cousin Nancy steps in.
Cousin Nancy, partly because of her love for Summer’s father, partly because she might possibly be a good witch kinda, has never trusted Stepmama, not once, and now, she’s bound and determined to protect Summer in any way that she can.
So she sneaks Summer protection charms – garlic for her window and rowan for her door, and the caul from her birth to be worn about her neck in a pouch. With these things, Cousin Nancy says, Stepmama cannot hurt her.
Not directly, perhaps, but when Snow becomes a woman, Stepmama takes her to her church, to see if Snow can learn the Craft as Stepmama hopes. But there is still too much fire and good in Snow, and she fights against what she sees, and that night, rebels for the first time. She sneaks in to see the mirror again, and asks who holds the most danger for her. She is told to beware the Hunter.
And the next day, Stepmama takes her up the mountain and passes her off to a young man named Hunter, who has very specific instructions – do what he wants with her, but at the end of it, cut out her heart and kill her. And Hunter, out of love for Stepmama, tries to do that very thing.
But Snow thinks fast and is clever and manages to get away, running into the woods and disappearing. She is clever and resourceful, and keeps herself alive until she finds a house standing empty, a house that belongs to six German dwarfs, who agree to take her in and protect her.
Stepmama finds out that Snow is still alive because she boasts to the mirror of the girl’s end and is informed otherwise. And I love that this isn’t about beauty – it’s not about being the fairest of them all. It’s about using Snow’s life to continue her own youth and then getting rid of the girl who has seen too much. But it’s not a grown woman’s jealousy of a seven year old, you know?
And she comes to the house of the dwarfs, disguised as a poor old woman, to whom Snow offers help because she acts faint and ill. Snow specifically does not invite the woman into the house, but Stepmama makes it in by pretending to have gotten confused, at which point, Snow feels guilty asking her to leave. No poisoned apple here, but a viper’s bite to Snow’s ankle. However, she recognizes her Stepmama as the snake bites her, and manages to get a few good whacks to the head in with a frying pan, killing both the witch and the snake before succumbing to the poison.
And it’s not the kiss of a prince or the jostling of a glass coffin that wakes her – it’s dwarf number seven (who is brother but not actually a dwarf), coming home from university just at the right moment and knowing enough about snakebites to suck the poison out of the wound and save Summer’s life.
I like the way this novel was grounded in the real world, and in the traditions and beliefs of Appalachia. It worked for this fairy tale very well. And I like the interjection of other voices (though hearing from one of the dwarfs at the end was a little jarring, and I didn’t like that she wrote the German accent out phonetically in his section) because they’re not overwhelming, and they don’t take away from this being Snow in Summer’s story. I do think that her name is dumb, but hey. So is “Snow White.”
And I’ll admit, this suffers some classic Jane Yolen full-length novel flaws (which I hate pointing out because I so adore Yolen as a short story writer!) – the pacing of the end is not great, it feels like she had to rush and squeeze it in, and elements are introduced and then disappear. But overall the voice and tone and adaptation were done very well, so I don’t have much to complain about.
To the checklist!
Make Snow White less of a mindless ninny? Yes. Don’t get me wrong, Snow is still very much a child, but Yolen makes that work in her favor. We see her overcoming a lot of what held her back when she was eleven as she grows older and realizes that this is not how families work. And she is resourceful and clever and cautious – she’s just a bit overly kind in the end. But not a mindless ninny, by any stretch.
Strengthen the Queen’s motivation? Yes. She was such a fascinating and well-drawn character.
Understand how poison and murder works? Yeah, much more believable here, and I’m choosing to ignore the niggling voice telling me that I think sucking poison out of a snakebite is a myth . . .
Fill in the background? Beautifully. The father was under an enchantment, too weak and besot to step in. The backdrop of small town Appalachia fit this story a lot better than I thought it would going in. So major kudos there.
Not without its flaws, but well done.