Jane Yolen's retelling of the Snow White story is eerie and immediate. The Appalachian setting adds both simplicity and strangeness as we watch the child's life changed, first by her mother's death and her father's withdrawal and later by the menacing incursion of the woman who marries her father.
Most of the chapters in Yolen's story are told by Snow in Summer herself, but some are memories recounted by Cousin Nancy and even Stepmama. When Snow (as Stepmama names her) watches her father snared in a graveyard by the woman from up the mountain, there is clearly dark magic involved. In Stepmama's first memory chapter, we learn that the woman was trained by a great conjurer. We also find out that Stepmama can increase her personal magic by taking someone else's years. She plans to get Snow's father's property for herself and sell it to the railroad company, something he has always refused to do. Then she will use her magic to steal seven years from Snow. (She also toys with the idea of making Snow her apprentice.) But she claims she won't make Snow and her father suffer—too much. As she tells herself, "After all, I'm not a wicked woman."
The creepy little details are actually more striking than the things Stepmama tells us in her chapters. The way she has one green eye and one blue eye. The way she must have Snow's permission to enter the house, like a vampire. The terrible spell she casts on Snow's father. The glass bottles of potions.
"They could make you very sick, Snow," she cautioned, clinking a long red fingernail against the glass of the darkest bottle. Something almost seemed to stir in the depths, something with hands and feet and closed eyes. Something like a dead baby.
That's even before Stepmama takes Snow to the church with the snake handlers. And before Snow learns that there are worse things than snakes.
This well-crafted story gradually builds in dread. (Though the seven dwarfs—well, six plus a brother off at college—provide a bit of comic relief.) The intense, atmospheric storytelling breathes new life into a tale we all think we know. Yolen's best character is Stepmama, who makes the Disney villains look insipid by comparison. You may be a little disappointed when the story is over and things get better for Snow. No more dread. Sigh—The End.
Here's a Reading Rocket interview with Jane Yolen from March 2010 and her website.
Note for Worried Parents: Amazon lists this book for ages 10 and up. There are references to Snow in Summer getting her period, and you get the feeling she's going to be raped at one point, though it turns out she's (only!) going to be murdered instead. The emotional content and some child abuse make me want to say this is a fairly mature read, but then, it probably depends on the kid.