Snow in Summer is Jane Yolen’s middle grade/young adult retelling of Snow White, set in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia in the 1940s. The main character is Snow in Summer, a girl named by her mother after the white Cerastium flowers that carpet their front yard. Her mother dies in childbirth when Summer is seven years old, and her father completely withdraws in his grief, neglecting Summer, who gets along with the help of her mother’s best friend Nancy. When Summer is eleven, her father is entranced by a sophisticated, cruel woman who married him to get her hands on the land he owns. Her father’s health begins to fail (helped along by Stepmama), but he barely hangs on, as does Summer. Her stepmother, who calls her “Snow,” treats her harshly and isolates her from Nancy and everyone else in her life. Stepmama is secretly a user of black witchcraft, complete with potions, a magic mirror, and other trappings of her “Craft.”
The story is told in first person, primarily by Snow in Summer, but periodically there is a chapter from Nancy’s or Stepmama’s point of view. Nancy mostly discusses her concerns about Snow in Summer; Stepmama, while assuring us that she is “not a wicked woman,” meditates her plans for “Snow”: either win her trust and bring her to the Craft (which plan includes, by the way, stealing seven years of Snow’s life to maintain Stepmama’s youth), or kill Snow and use her heart for witchcraft purposes. There’s an intriguing conflict between the two parts of Snow in Summer’s name, with those who love her calling her “Summer” and those with evil intentions calling her “Snow.” This is also echoed in the dichotomy between her joyful life as a very young girl and the painful years after her mother dies and her stepmother joins her family.
Snow in Summer has an unusual (for fantasy) Depression-era Appalachian setting, with a touch of magical realism. Summer’s father, for example, has magical “green fingers” (like a green thumb, only better) and Cousin Nancy assures Summer that the caul from her birth has magical properties. This rather realistic setting is combined with more fantastical elements of black witchcraft and German fairy tales ― a combination that sometimes seems rather disjointed. The “dwarves,” for example, are six rather short, wiry miners from Germany: they have a younger, seventh brother who is studying at the university, but then they also have a peculiarly intelligent pet bear who guides (or drives) Summer to their mountain home and then protects her from danger … albeit not entirely successfully. It’s a bit meta when Summer specifically mentions being familiar with the Snow White fairy tale, and she’s fully aware of her evil stepmother’s magical mirror and her plans to use a Hunter to kill her, but she still frustratingly and inexplicably makes the same near-fatal mistake that the Snow White made in the original tale.
As part of Stepmama’s diabolical plans, she infiltrates and uses a creepy evangelical church that focuses on “signs” like being able to survive snakebites and drinking poison. Vilifying a group’s religious beliefs, even if they seem misguided, ridiculous or repugnant, may leave some readers with an uncomfortable feeling. Similarly, the black magic practiced by Stepmama, although not described in a great amount of detail, is rather creepy and may be off-putting for some young, sensitive readers.
While Jane Yolen’s writing is evocative and thoughtful, as usual, Snow in Summer is a bit of a slow, odd story ― until the ending, which feels rather rushed. Despite its weaknesses, I recommend this to readers who are fond of unusual fairy tale retellings with some darkness.