The story begins in the 1950’s with Boy Novak. Boy flees to a small town in New England to escape her verbally and physically abusive father. Although Boy is a strikingly beautiful icy blonde, she has no sense of herself, so much so that when she looks in a mirror, she sometimes cannot see herself.
Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a widower with a little girl named Snow. Although Boy believes she loves someone else, she marries Arturo. It is not until she has her own dark-skinned daughter, whom she names Bird at Snow’s suggestion, that she learns she has married into an African-American family passing for white.
Boy is appalled to learn that Arturo has a sister, Clara, whom she has never met. Arturo’s mother Olivia sent Clara away as a child because her features were too African-American.
Boy is also worried about Snow, a beauty who has always been fawned over by her family for her pale skin. Boy sees something hidden in Snow and begins to fear for Bird. Finally, she has Arturo send Snow away to live with Clara.
Bird takes up the story at the age of fourteen. She shares her mother’s problems with mirrors. She is a bright, lively girl who is intensely curious about her sister Snow. Soon she begins a correspondence with Snow. When Boy, Snow, and Bird are finally reunited and other secrets emerge, they are forced to explore the differences between appearance and reality.
The setting of this novel during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement adds dimension to this truly original novel. It is also beautifully written. I felt it slowed down a little in the section where Snow and Bird are corresponding, but it was otherwise absorbing. Although the novel has a realistic setting, it harks back to its fairy tale beginning through dreams, a few hallucinatory moments, and the symbolism of the mirror.