Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen. Master (mistress?) storyteller Jane Yolen moves the story of Snow White to 1940s Appalachia. For all the fairy tale novels that I’ve read, this is the first retelling of Snow White. And while I find the basic fairy tale over-told to the point of insipid, this was a heart-wrenching retelling. Snow-in-Summer, called Summer by her family, is just seven when her mother and new baby brother die together. Her father, formerly a happy, musical man, is unable to go on with life. He drifts aimlessly around their heretofore lush farm, and spends every evening at the grave site. The only person who takes care of Summer is Nancy, her father’s old high school friend. One day, following her father to the graveyard, Summer sees a pale woman in bright red lipstick come out of nowhere to sit with her father. Soon, they are married. Summer distrusts her new Stepmama from the start, but she is so desperate for someone to love and pay attention to her that she is willing to do almost anything to win her approval, even letting herself be called Snow instead of Summer. Instead of waking up with Stepmama’s potions, her father gets worse, often not even getting out of his chair. Stepmama is a truly wicked stepmother, starting out with classic abusive moves such as not allowing Summer to see anyone outside the house and doling out extreme punishments, such as cleaning hot ashes from the woodstove with bare hands, for infractions minor and imagined. Things only go downhill from there. Most of the story is told from Summer’s point of view, but the occasional chapter will be from Nancy or Stepmama’s point of view. Interestingly, Nancy and Snow-in-Summer both narrate in the past tense, while Stepmama mostly talks about what she plans for the future – plans that from the beginning involve the deaths of Summer and her father, but only if they don’t go along with her plans. She often closes her chapters with “After all, I’m not a wicked woman,” though her plans include taking years of her life in exchange for teaching Snow the Craft, without ever making it clear to Snow that that’s what she’s doing. There are hints of good magic in Papa’s resistance to Stepmama and in Nancy trying to help Summer protect herself, but Stepmama is the only full-on conscious magic user in the story.
Summer’s narration combines her present knowledge of how much she underestimated Stepmama with a strength and humor that keeps the bleakness of the story from being completely overwhelming. It’s three-quarters of the way through the book before Summer runs away from the Hunter she intuits that Stepmama has hired to kill her and finds the dwarves, mining their own little mine. In the traditional tale, Snow White keeping house for the dwarves never made much sense – a young princess knows how to keep house better than life-long bachelors? And wants to do it? Here, Summer may only be twelve, but she’s effectively been managing her father’s house for the past five years. She’s really good at what she does, able to introduce improvements like a bang-up home garden for the dwarves who are otherwise pretty competent. I was proud of Summer both for having the knowledge and the guts to do such good work for the dwarves, rather than presenting herself as just a charity case or trying to get back to her father. It was a long, hard battle for her, and the victory at the end is hard-won and sweet, with Summer herself the primary force behind her rescue. I’m sensitive to children suffering in a way that I think children themselves might not be, which made this difficult for me to read even while it was so compelling that I finished it in a day.