One of the greatest-ever performances at the Tony Awards is Sydney Lucas’s performance of “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home. Go back and watch it. Fun Home, which took home the Best Musical Tony and four others in 2015, tells the real-life story of gay cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who came to terms with her identity as a butch lesbian while growing up in rural Pennsylvania. In “Ring of Keys,” ten-year-old Alison sees a butch woman for the first time and feels an instant, soul-deep kinship. It’s joyful, strange, and totally overwhelming. Like Other Girls, Britta Lundin’s new young adult novel about a closeted teenaged lesbian who joins her high school’s previously all-guy football team, captures that feeling perfectly.
Mara Deeble is a 6’2” farm girl in rural Oregon who knows she was built for basketball. When she gets kicked off the basketball team for fighting with a teammate, Mara devises a plan to show her coach how much of a team player she can be. She joins the school football team for the fall season—even though some of the other players, including her best friend and her brother, aren’t thrilled. When four other girls join, inspired by what they see as Mara’s feminist statement, Mara’s even less popular with the boys on the team. Mara has always been one of the guys. Now she’s being lumped in with the girls, and she hates it.
For Mara, joining the football team was the opposite of a political statement. But as she grudgingly starts to help the other girls on the team, she realizes that it is political. She navigates being friends with girls—for the first time ever—at the same time that she navigates her own relationship to womanhood. Mara has a “Ring of Keys” moment of her own when a butch thirty-something named Jupiter walks into the hardware store where she works. A recent transplant from gay-friendly Portland, Jupiter becomes a mentor. Slowly, Mara realizes that her small town might have a place for girls like her after all.
When I started Like Other Girls, I wondered if its message would feel stale. Didn’t not-like-other-girls Internet discourse exhaust itself years ago? But Lundin’s novel is the opposite of a discourse vehicle. It deals with gender, sexuality, and sexism in ways that feel fresh, funny, and relevant. Awkward and headstrong, Mara is an all-time great protagonist. There are so few butch protagonists in YA, and Mara’s what we call “good representation,” complete with a truck and an empowering haircut scene. (Did I mention she’s 6’2”?)
The minor characters are real, too, not stereotypes of girly-girls or sexist football players. Mara’s friendship with Jupiter and her growing romance with a girl on the team are both great. Most affecting of all for me, though, was Mara’s relationship with her male best friend and teammate, Quinn. Mara grows increasingly uncomfortable with Quinn’s sexism, culminating in a devastating betrayal and one of the most painful friend breakups I’ve found in a YA novel. I could seriously gush about this book all day. When it was over, I went running to read Lundin’s debut, Ship It, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin was released on August 3, 2021.