The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow is a coming-of-age story about a biracial girl growing up in the 1980s who is grappling with her sense of identity and a tragic family history.  The novel is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.  It is Durrow’s first published novel.

The story is told primarily in present tense through the point of view of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and an African American soldier.  The novel opens shortly after Rachel’s mother has jumped off a Chicago apartment building, pushing her three children off the building with her.  As the sole survivor, Rachel is forced to move in with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon’s black community.

Rachel’s beauty, with her light brown skin and blue eyes, brings unwanted attention and enemies.  Raised by her Danish mother to think of herself as “white,” Rachel finds herself at her new home now expected to “act black,” something she feels she doesn’t know how to do.  She wonders why everyone insists on defining her by race.  Rachel says: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes.”

Interwoven with Rachel’s chapters are the voices of several others, including Nella, Rachel’s mother.  Nella’s journal entries are captured in the broken English of a new immigrant from Finland, a single mother struggling with sobriety.  She doesn’t understand America’s racial history and feels unable to protect her children from its ugly legacy.

Durrow’s powerful use of dialogue illustrates this tension.  Two weeks before the rooftop tragedy, Nella arrives at work wearing a new scarf.  When complimented on the scarf by her African American boss, Nella responds that it is from her boyfriend to her “little jigaboos,” – the terms used by the boyfriend in reference to Nella’s children.  “That’s what Doug calls them,” Nella tells her boss.  “It’s so cute.”  Later, after learning the meaning of this term, Nella writes in her journal: “Never have I been thinking of my children as black.  How to learn all these things that might hurt them?”

There is also humor in the dialogue, which balances the dark story.  As the Grandmother watches Rachel’s unmarried aunt eat a pancake, she asks her: “How you gonna catch a lizard with your backside loading you down?”

Characters’ observations of the little details aid development of the story. Rachel tells us that nobody is allowed to sit on Grandma’s special furniture unless company is visiting, and that her friend Jesse “isn’t like a white guy…[h]e recites  revolutionary Jamaican poems by heart and…knows things about black people that only black people know – like what it means for a black girl’s hair to ‘go back.’”

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky has a quiet power that gets inside the reader.  It is a statement on race and beauty and speaks to a mother’s despair over her inability to protect her children. It is the story of a survivor, and a story that remains with its reader for years after finishing the book.

 

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