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Literature / Six-Gun Snow White

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"This is what it means to be a woman in the world."
"Coyote had a plan which he knew he could carry out because of his great power. He took his heart and cut it in half. He put one half right at the tip of his nose and the other half at the end of his tail."
Apache folktale

A novella published in 2013, Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente is a retelling of the classic fairy tale reimagined in the The Wild West. While examining the typical themes of relationships between mothers and daughters and beauty being a woman's power, the story also touches on issues of racism and the difficulties of being biracial, the domination of women by men, the domination of Native American cultures by whites, and digs deeper than most adaptations into the psychology of abuse.

The story begins in the mid-1800s with a Mr. H traveling to Montana Territory shortly after making his fortune in silver. Looking to expand his business ventures he arrives in Billings where he meets a Crow woman called Gun That Sings. He is immediately smitten with her, and she is immediately horrified by his attraction. Though Gun That Sings tries to resist his advances and proposal of marriage, Mr. H has his way and takes his new Indian bride to California where they have a girl with hair black as coal, lips red as blood, but unfortunately her skin is not as white as his.

The girl grows up in solitude in her father's house, forbidden to leave the grounds. Her only friends are the animals in the zoo her father has built for her, and her gun, a revolver she calls Rose Red. Mr. H spoils his daughter with gifts, but never properly loves her, so it's still a lonely existence. Everything changes when Mr. H remarries. The new Mrs. H is a white woman from Boston who seeks to take her new half-breed stepdaughter under her wing and purify her by any means necessary.

The girl knows from the start, though, that Mrs. H doesn't and can't mean her well when she never uses her name. Instead she renames her stepdaughter for something she is not and can never become: Snow White.

Six-Gun Snow White provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: In different ways. Mr. H is neglectful. Mrs. H is more direct, hitting Snow White, locking her up without food, bathing her in freezing milk, and other such actions.
  • Adults Are Useless: Because none of the servants want to lose a good position (they get paid extra for keeping Snow White secret), none of them ever do anything to help.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Most of the men in the story force themselves on the women in one way or another.
  • Attempted Rape: A man tries to rape Snow White after she breaks the fingers of a few of his friends. He fails, and the ensuing fight is pretty brutal.
  • Beast Man: Due to being born in the mirror and improperly brought out, Deer Boy has the legs and antlers of a deer.
  • Broken Bird: Snow White, thanks to the neglect of her father and abuse of her stepmother.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Undertones when Deer Boy kisses Snow White.
  • Bounty Hunter: The dude, who's taken plenty of runaways and criminals and doesn't blink twice on being asked to deliver Snow White's heart. She outsmarts him and shoots him.
  • Crapsack World: Life arguably only gets worse after Snow White leaves the house, because now she has to face being biracial and a woman in a white man's world.
  • Daddy's Girl: Mr. H treats Snow White more like a possession than a daughter, but up until she's eleven, he gives her everything money can buy.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Mrs. H had quite the terrible childhood, too, if the mirror is to be believed.
  • Deal with the Devil: Mrs. H is implied to have made some kind of deal with dark powers in order to escape her own childhood abuse.
  • Death by Childbirth: Gun That Sings dies soon after Snow White is born. Justified in that she already attempted suicide and the doctors only bothered to keep her alive long enough to get the baby.
  • Demoted to Extra: Mr. H stops being important in the story after he remarries. Snow White isn't sure if he's ever even at home.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!: The women of Oh-Be-Joyful know Snow White shouldn't be opening her door and accepting gifts, but she wants a mother too much to listen.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gun That Sings tried to cut her wrists after finding out she was pregnant.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Snow White gets two kisses in her sleep.
    • A man comes into her hollow in a mining community, looking to rape her. When he sees her beauty, though, he is overcome by more romantic notions. He still gets beaten for it.
    • Deer Boy tries to wake her from her enchanted sleep by kissing her.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Mrs. H's first words to Snow White are, "So you're the little Indian child." She never properly shakes hands on the "If you love me, I'll love you back" deal.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mrs. H sends her biological son to kill her stepdaughter, showing ultimately that she doesn't have any real love for either of her children. Snow White describes a stepmother like a bullet you can't dig out.
  • Fairest of Them All: Played with. Mrs. H is extremely beautiful and she wants to stay that way. She also uses this term to tease Snow White about why the Crow won't want her. Not because she is pretty, but because her skin will be so obviously lighter than theirs.
  • Famed In-Story: If mining is involved, so is Mr. H. When Snow White goes looking for work, the mine belongs to her father.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Mrs. H introduces herself as a gentle soul. Why exactly she believes this is true is a good question.
  • Freudian Excuse: Snow White is really messed up, and it all comes from how deeply she equally adores and hates and fears her stepmother.
  • In the Blood: Invoked by Mrs. H, who claims to be so hard on Snow White so as to remove her Indian taint. Snow White was never raised among the Crow, the taint is something inside her.
  • Lady in Red: Mrs. H is wearing a red dress the first time Snow White properly meets her, and she's so beautiful that looking at her feels like "drinking something harsh and strong."
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Witch Hex's speech to Snow White would indicate that she's at least somewhat aware that they are in a fairy tale with all the talk of motifs and authors being jerks.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: A view of women that permeates the story. Mr. H can only see Gun That Sings as his personal concubine, but through the power of marriage and his influence he plans to make a proper, modest woman of her.
  • Magic Mirror: Mrs. H's mirror, which we see show the moon and past events. It also seems to have a world inside it somehow, as her son is born in the mirror.
  • Mama Bear: Bang-Up gets very protective of Snow White in short order.
  • Manipulative Bastard: While Mrs. H is very cruel to Snow White, she shows just enough confusing tenderness that Snow White wants to win her love about as much as she wants to kill her.
  • Marital Rape License: Heavily implied to be the case with Mr. H and Gun That Sings as she goes so far as to try to die when he gets her pregnant. He is entirely obsessed with her, while she is shown as passively accepting his passion because there is nothing else she can do.
  • Meaningful Name: Gun That Sings. Not necessarily because of what it says about her, but because of the significance that it will have to Snow White down the line. Snow White's favorite thing in the world is her gun. When she hears Mrs. H sing, she is immediately mesmerized because she has never heard a woman sing before. And what does Snow White want more than anything in life? A real mother.
  • Meaningful Rename: We never find out what Snow White's birth name is, because even she doesn't remember it. So by calling her Snow White, Mrs. H not only erases her identity, but also starts building her new identity in a foundation that is painfully aware of being racially inferior.
    • When Mr. H marries her, Gun That Sings signs her name as Sarah H. First because it's a more "civilized" name. But considering Sarah means princess and the royal status of the characters in the original fairy tale, it fits that a girl is renamed princess to marry a "kingly" fellow.
  • Missing Mom: Gun That Sings died shortly after Snow White was born.
  • Offing the Offspring: We assume it is for the sake of her own son, but Mrs. H still tries to have Snow White killed so that she can do... something with the heart.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Snow White shoots the dude in the shoulder and the knee in their duel, but leaves him alive and able to carry a deer heart across three states back to Mrs H.
  • Outlaw Town: Oh-Be-Joyful, a Lady Land run by seven outlaws. The occupants range from genuine criminals like bandits and murderesses to just women running from horrible lives, but no one is on the right side of the law.
  • Parental Substitute: They never say it, but Bang-Up Jackson becomes the closest thing to a real mother Snow White ever gets.
  • Race Lift: Snow White is reimagined as a biracial girl of white and Indian ancestry.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Meaningfully averted. Mr. H wishes for a daughter with black hair and red lips, like Gun That Sings, but he also wants her to be white-skinned, like himself. Snow White comes out copper-skinned like her mother.
  • Rip Van Winkle: Ultimately, no one is able to wake Snow, and she only gets out in modern day when the town she's being kept in floods and her glass coffin shatters. She gets a doctorate in physics and starts studying the stars.
  • Rule of Three: Appears all over. When Mr. H attempts to woo Gun That Sings, he brings her three dresses the colors of the sun, moon, and stars. When Mrs. H attempts to kill Snow White, she brings cigarettes, whiskey, and apples.
  • Screaming Birth: The Mrs. H in the mirror screams while giving birth. The real Mrs. H, watching, doesn't even fidget.
  • Sdrawkcab Speech: Deer Boy speaks backwards due to being born and growing up in a mirror.
  • Self-Harm: In a roundabout way. Mrs. H. abuses her mirror self quite horribly, drowning her and forcing her to give birth without aid, all in the guise of teaching her how to be a woman in the world.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Snow White. A man notices that if she had a bath, she'd look just like a respectable rancher's daughter. The dude actually does see her get that bath, and she's so pretty she's almost inhuman.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Unlike the original story where Snow White never returns home, this Snow White does go back to see her house, which has become a museum. Her old room has been designated as "guest quarters." An indication that not only can she not go home, she never belonged to begin with.
  • Ten Paces and Turn: When the dude finally catches up to Snow White, he plays cards with her. He draws highest, he shoots her on the spot. She draws highest, they duel it out like gentlemen. She palms an ace while the cutting of the deck and shoots him twice before he can even shoot once.
  • Tempting Apple: Played with. Snow White doesn't like apples. Further, when Mrs. H comes for her, she comes as herself and not in any disguise. The narrator comes right out and says, "This is a suicide we're watching."
  • Training from Hell: The package that Mrs. H wraps her abuse in. She claims she is teaching Snow White about how to be a woman in the world.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Addressed. There is a narration change where "Snow White stops speaking." The new, mysterious third-person narrator states that a person can tell true stories about other people, but not themselves. Hence Snow White can't be the narrator anymore.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Snow White was always an unusual child because she was not properly socialized, but when she was younger she cried over shooting a seagull and taught one of the servants to read. As an adult, she killed someone and didn't think twice about it.
  • Vain Sorceress: While it appears to have something to do with a deal she made with greater powers that Snow White and therefore the reader never fully understand, Mrs. H remains slim while pregnant. Her reflection gets bigger and has a baby, but nothing mars Mrs. H proper.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Mrs. H basically punishes Snow White for not being white, constantly and cruelly.
  • Would Hit a Girl: While the dude—the huntsman of the tale—feels tender and almost fatherly toward Snow White when he meets her, he's still going to kill her and take her heart.
  • You Have Failed Me: Not seen, but Snow White is so certain Mrs. H is evil that even after the dude tries to kill her for her heart, she warns him not to stick around long enough for her to pay him after delivering an animal's heart.