One thing I love about being a reader is when two books connect unexpectedly. Last month I had one of those moments of book serendipity with two seemingly unrelated reads, Postcards from Cookie by Caroline Clarke and Boy, Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Both books, written by women of color, explore race, adoption and identity in some ways that I wasn’t expecting.
I actually read Boy, Snow, Bird first, based on the glowing reviews of several other bloggers. The book is a fictional recasting of the myth of Snow White, although the way Oyeymi plays with that story is more inventive than that. The book begins in 1953 when Boy Novak runs away from her abusive father and ends up in a small town in Massachusetts. After she marries a local widower, she becomes the stepmother of a beautiful little girl, Snow Whitman. When Boy’s first daughter, Bird, is born with dark skin, it becomes clear that Boy’s husband and his family have been keeping a secret, passing as white for years.
Postcards from Cookie, a memoir, also starts with an adoption. Caroline Clarke grew up knowing that she was adopted, but never felt any need to learn more about her birth mother until she was an adult, concerned that she might pass health problems to her children. Although the adoption agency could not give Caroline the name of her birth mother, they provided enough details that she was able to figure out that her mother was Carole “Cookie” Cole, the daughter of musician Nat King Cole. After working up the nerve, Clarke contacted Cookie. Most of the book takes place after that contact, exploring the way their relationship developed and was challenged as they grew to know each other.
What struck me about the two books is the way they both ask important questions about what it means to be a mixed race person. In Boy, Snow, Bird, the Whitman family works hard to hide their race from their neighbors, assuming that’s the only way they will be accepted. That, in some ways, turns out not to be the case, although it it something that Boy has a difficult time with.
When Caroline Clarke was adopted in 1964, her African American parents raised her believing she was black. Being African American was part of her identity. When she finds out from Cookie that her father was white, making her a mixed race person, it causes some tension as Clarke tries to come to terms with what a mixed-race identity might mean in a contemporary setting. I thought those questions of race and identity were explored effectively in both books from different angles.
Both books also have many things to say about the idea of motherhood, adoptive and biological, and the relationships that develop between mothers and their daughters. I don’t want to talk about that too much for fear of spoilers — especially for Boy, Snow Bird — but I did want to just mention it as another way I saw threads between these two books.
I’m not sure if these two books would be so connected in my head if I hadn’t read them back-to-back, but I really couldn’t stop thinking about them together. I love bookish connections like that!
Disclosure: I received both of these books from their publishers for review consideration.