Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwel Friends, Oct 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Plot Summary: This retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” crossed with Swan Lake, with hints of other fairy tales, centers two sisters who grow up knowing that one day one of them will be turned into a swan. In their predominantly white town, being latina links Blanca and Roja both to witchcraft and strangeness, but Blanca’s sunshine yellow hair affords her better treatment than Roja, whose red-stained black hair marks her at a glance as other. Despite their differences, they’ve spent their whole lives trying to become indistinguishable from one another, to prevent the swans from being able to choose between them. The arrival of the swans to their family home coincides with the arrival of two local boys, Page and Barclay, and rising tensions breed jealousy and resentment. As the trust the sisters have worked so hard to make unbreakable begins to dissolve, will they still be able to protect one another? And will they want to?
Queer Rep: This is such a rich book, full of meaningful subplots and vital secondary characters, that my summary doesn’t begin to touch on the multiple queer identities that are present and fundamental to the story. Throughout, characters grapple with these identities in reference to oppressive social norms, while finding the people who will love and support them and help them heal familial relationships that seemed beyond healing.
The world of the story has a surreal, timeless quality but is very much imbued with the prejudices of our present. There’s a sort of grudging social tolerance for gay and transgender folks; people may not like them, but they can at least wrap their heads around them. Identities outside the gender binary are another matter, and it’s against this lack of understanding that Page, one of the narrative’s four focalizers and Blanca’s love interest, asserts his identity. Page challenges the idea that being trans requires adherence to the gender binary:
I tried saying yes and no, that it was both and neither one, and also more than these things. That I was a boy, but that it was not as simple as me wanting to be called he. That I liked being called he and him. But that I would’ve liked being called she and her sometimes, too, if it didn’t let everyone settle into the assumption that I was a girl. (21, emphasis in original)
The narrative emphasizes Page’s exclusive right to define his identity, which the first-person perspective reinforces.
Blanca’s relationship with Page works because it’s founded on easy acceptance and mutual attraction. Blanca asks, clumsily but respectfully, about Page’s gender and pronouns, rather than making assumptions, and she takes the answers Page gives her without hesitation. Neither seems concerned about labels for sexuality; they’re just people who are spectacularly, sensually into each other.
I’m a sucker for books that have queer couples of more than one generation, so I’d be remiss not to mention Lynn and Tess. Page and Barclay discover that their grandmothers have recently moved in together–a welcome reminder, amidst YA’s normalization of coming out and finding love while a teen, that people can create new relationships and/or become more visibly queer at any point in life.
Final Word: McLemore’s writing is something else, and she possesses an amazing ability to revisit similar themes (latinx identity, family, sexuality, gender, white supremacy, capitalist corruption) in new ways through dynamic, inventive plots. Queer identity is important here but not as central as the relationship between the two sisters, which is as it should be for this story. Blanca & Roja therefore may not lend itself as easily to award selection as When the Moon Was Ours did in 2017, but it’s a book worth reading and recommending.