December 28, 2006


Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. By Michael Cadnum. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Rickshaw Girl. By Mitali Perkins. Illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Charlesbridge. $13.95.

     Sometimes a legend has such power that it resounds through the ages and through retellings that are profoundly different from the original tale.  And sometimes legends in general permeate our thinking about stories that, when you look at them more closely, are not really legends at all.

     The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice dates back to ancient Greece and has several components.  For example, it is Orpheus who helps Jason and the Argonauts pass the Sirens safely on their quest for the Golden Fleece.  But the best-known tale of Orpheus involves his marriage to Eurydice.  This is originally a tragic story, in which the power of melody proves insufficient to overcome human frailties: Orpheus charms the rulers of Hades into allowing him to escape with Eurydice, who has died on their wedding day, but the grieving musician cannot resist the impulse to look back at his beloved and therefore loses her forever.  And beyond that sad ending comes a sad postlude, when Orpheus is attacked and torn to pieces by followers of Dionysus.  Later ages found this double tragedy, or even the single one of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice, unsatisfactory, and often changed the ending, as Michael Cadnum does in Nightsong.  Cadnum bases his book on Ovid’s retelling in Latin of the Orpheus-Eurydice story, and Cadnum follows Ovid in using the Roman names for gods: Jupiter instead of Zeus, Minerva instead of Athena.  This is Cadnum’s second reworking of an Ovidian tale, and is just as swift-paced and effective as Starfall, in which Cadnum retold the story of Daedalus and the ill-fated flight of his son, Icarus.  Cadnum aims at young readers and is determined to give these stories pleasing conclusions, if not wholly happy ones.  Thus, in Nightsong, Orpheus does indeed lose Eurydice, but he rediscovers her presence when, after long mourning, he again begins to play his lyre and hears it sounding with her voice.  That’s a neat conclusion, actually, and it plays into the transformation theme so common in Greek myths.  The story moves ahead swiftly and is shorter than its 136 pages would indicate, since the book has blank pages to introduce sections and lots of white space mixed with the print.  The result is an easy-to-read and pleasantly uplifting story, containing tragic elements but featuring a resolution that is satisfying to modern tastes – along the lines of a fairy tale in which there is suffering but a sense of happiness at the end.

     Rickshaw Girl reads much like a fairy tale, too, or like a legend drawn from Bangladesh, where India-born Mitali Perkins lived for a time and from which her ancestors came.  Yet this is a thoroughly modern story, although one set in a part of the world with which most Americans have little familiarity.  Like her earlier book, Monsoon Summer, this short novel is about the changing roles of girls and young women in parts of the world still very much bound by tradition.  Monsoon Summer was set in India and had a long-distance romance (a very long distance: India to the United States) at its heart.  Rickshaw Girl is simpler and in some ways more charming, with the straightforwardness and exotic setting combining to produce its fairy-tale quality.  It is about a young girl named Naima who loves to create the traditional patterns that are painted in Bangladeshi homes for special occasions.  The book is festooned with these alpanas and with other sensitively rendered drawings by Jamie Hogan.  As for the story: despite Naima’s skill with designs, she is not permitted to earn money to help her family – this is rural Bangladesh, after all, where gender roles are fixed.  How Naima finds a way to stay true to her culture while continuing to produce the art she loves – and finds a way to help her family after all – is the subject of the book.  Perkins tells it believably, caringly and with sensitivity both to old traditions and to the modern forces that are bringing change, however slowly, to so many parts of the world.

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