The myth is different this time. This time, “Orpheus? She’s a girl. A girl who likes girls.” Orpheus Girl, the debut YA novel from award-winning poet Brynne Rebele-Henry, is a myth adaptation, but it breathes life beyond the ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Raya, a modern queer girl living in rural and conservative Texas, takes on the role of Orpheus in a town where homosexuality is beyond taboo –– it’s deeply hated and feared.
Alongside Sarah, her childhood companion with whom she’s recently begun to acknowledge and act upon her romantic feelings, Raya lives in constant fear that she’ll be found out. The fear runs deep in this town and permeates all aspects of life –– Raya cannot exist in school, at home, or anywhere in between, without the panic that she’ll be sent away, never to be heard from again, like every other queer person she’s known.
And yet, in hidden moments, the relationship between Raya and Sarah blooms into something sacred, sweet, and passionate. The love between these two girls is the beating heart of this novel, and this romance combined with the intense masquerade they must constantly perform, “just pretending” their feelings away, is where Rebele-Henry succeeds at portraying the aching duality of being queer in an environment that will not allow it. In one instance, Raya describes the false, straight alter-egos she and Sarah would make up to try to fit in: “We would tell them in whispers, as if performing the rite enough times would make our words true and we would become the girls in the stories about ourselves.” And then, poetically and without apology, she begins the very next paragraph: “When she kissed me, her tongue was warmer than I thought it would be, and her hands were shaking, though only a little.”
If readers are as familiar with Greek myths as Raya, they will know that this romance is doomed from the start, and Raya knows it too. She often wonders “how it will happen,” feeling sure that being outed as a lesbian is never a choice she would make, but it will happen to her eventually regardless. “Maybe they’ll just be able to tell that everything I wear, the makeup and hairstyles and dresses, is a costume because of how stiff I feel inside the identity that’s been chosen for me,” Raya says. “Or maybe one day someone will look at me and just know and that will be it.” It feels as inevitable as death.
And sure enough, the time comes. Sarah is sent away first, and Raya, at the recommendation of Sarah’s parents, is sent away to the same place.
Raya and Sarah are equal in their journey to the underworld –– here, a queer correctional camp. It’s called Friendly Saviors, but of course it’s anything but. The goal is to “fix” queer kids and condition them to be straight, to help them because they’re “sick.” From intense physical labor to electric shocks, the teenagers at this camp are degraded and diminished as their strength slowly leaves them. Hyde, the leader of the camp and a regular Hades, pushes them as far into ghostliness as he can manage.
But Raya maintains hope, and this is where her true heroism comes from. Unlike the original myth where only Eurydice has died and Orpheus descends from the land of the living to rescue her, in this telling, one is no more or less dead than the other. Raya and Sarah are both lesbians, and the only thing that posits Raya in the role of Orpheus at this camp is her own decision. It’s her own hope, not magic or privilege, that allows Raya to pursue bravery and finally embrace who she is. This speaks to the core of heroism in a way that is inspiring and captivating.
Orpheus Girl is a modern epic that helps us think about the older epics, and what they have still to offer us. The bigoted traditionalism of the Texan town shows us one option, that old stories offer us an established fear, promising certain tragedy that we need not question. But Raya’s open imaginings of a loving, hopeful future offer us another option, and perhaps this is how to be a better Orpheus –– we can rescue the good things, and do our very best to never look back.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
By Brynne Rebele-Henry
Published Oct. 8, 2019