Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All is a variation on Snow White set in the late 1940’s in the hills of West Virginia. Snow in Summer, our Snow White analogue, is a farmer’s daughter instead of a princess. She reads books and fairy tales, including Snow White, and often compares herself to characters in the books. She is called “Summer” by her godmother who is warm and loving and “Snow” by her Stepmama who is cold, demanding, and abusive. The dwarves are German brothers, although their late mother and their 7th brother are of average height. The 7th brother is a scholar and he fills the role of the prince.
Jane Yolen has had several interesting modern spins on fairy tales. Instead of simply retelling the story, she uses the novels to explore an aspect of the original tale. In this case, it’s primarily an exploration of how and why a child ends up in an abusive situation. While the abuse isn’t detailed, Summer’s mindset is—she talks about being willing to do anything for a sign of her Stepmama’s love. The story is told by an older Summer, so she reflects on the circumstances that kept her from escaping an awful situation. There are also occasional short chapters from the point of view Stepmama or Summer’s godmother. It helps if you keep an eye on chapter titles.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
A young man, Hunter, tries to murder Summer at Stepmama’s command. When he fails, Stepmama poisons him. Stepmama later brings a rattlesnake that bites Summer, poisoning her. Stepmama dies—maybe at Summer’s hand? It isn’t totally clear.
Abuse & Neglect
Summer’s father pays her very little attention after her mother dies. It only gets worse when he falls under Stepmama’s spell. Stepmama is pretty awful to Summer, abusing her physically and emotionally.
Summer’s mother dies while giving birth to her little brother who also dies. This happened before the story opens, but the effects are still strongly felt. Stepmama killed her Master in the Craft (she’s a witch) and later kills Hunter when he fails to kill Summer. Stepmama also calmly plans how to kill Summer and her father when they’re no longer useful to her plan.
Magic & Superstition
Stepmama practices the Craft—it’s definitely magic, as she can bring people under her influence, she makes potions, and it’s fed by taking years from another’s life. The Craft is definitely dark and at best morally ambiguous (there’s no question Stepmama herself is evil). There is of course a talking mirror that can only tell truth. Summer was born with a caul, which her godmother saved and later gives to her to wear as a talisman against her Stepmama. Rowan berries, garlic, and other superstitions are also effective. Summer’s father has a green thumb that seems magical—his crops are much better than anyone else’s. There’s also an intelligent bear, Ursula, who finds the lost Summer and herds her toward the home of the dwarves. She’s the protector and companion of the dwarves. A white owl shows up a few times, and Summer imagines it might be her mother’s angel. It does seem that someone is looking after her at times.
Churches play a central role in the story. Summer’s father grieves daily at her mother’s grave by the old abandoned Morton church. Most of the townspeople belong to the Baptist church. Summer’s godmother is Catholic, which is slightly shocking in this small town, and often takes Summer to her warm and colorful church. Stepmama attends a mysterious church up the mountain, which seems to be in some way connected to the Craft. They charm snakes, drink poison, and speak in tongues—Stepmama takes Summer there once, but it ends disastrously with Summer fleeing the church and getting sick all over Stepmama’s car. The church is portrayed as terrifying, although in the end we learn that Stepmama isn’t actually part of the community—she was just using them.
Stepmama was likely used and abused by the man who taught her the Craft. I’d say she’s anti-male, and a hatred of men does seem to fuel some of her actions, but she’s mostly anti-anyone-who-isn’t-helping-me. There are no useful men in this story until the 7th brother shows up at the end and knows how to treat Summer’s rattlesnake bite. Mostly it’s the story of three women struggling over Summer’s fate.
Summer’s father relies on farming to survive. His gardens are lush, and when he cares for them they grow the best crops around. Stepmama has targeted him because she knows that the railroad wants his farm—once he’s dead, it will be hers to sell. Although this isn’t explicitly stressed, this situation does put Stepmama’s evil plans on the side of industry.
Summer gets her first period—now that she’s a woman, Stepmama decides to show her the Craft. The cramps, blood, nausea, and mess are talked about in some detail. If you haven’t experienced it, this isn’t a comforting portrayal. It isn’t horrific, either, but I imagine that if my daughter reads this there will be questions since this goes into more explicit detail than we’ve discussed so far.
This is an interesting study of an abusive situation. It’s not an easy read because of the content, so I’d probably recommend it for ages 12 and up. The ending is pretty happy, but up until the happy ending, the story is a heart-wringing story of people who feel they can’t act against the evil in their midst.
Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All by Jane Yolen
Published in 2011 by Philomel Books
Read hard copy