From its opening lines – “ ‘You my lucky piece,’ Grandma says.... Her hand is wrapped around mine like a leash” – Heidi W. Durrow pulls us into her stunning first novel, a moving story encircling us as firmly as that protective grandmotherly grip.
Like Kaye Gibbons’s “Ellen Foster” (1987) – another stellar debut novel published by Algonquin Books – Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is about a smart, plucky girl, already a survivor at 11, who wins our hearts instantly. Both writers handle devastating, potentially melodramatic material with an understated restraint, tempering bleakness with underlying reassurance about the strength of the human spirit.
When we meet Rachel Morse, the daughter of an African-American GI and a Danish woman, she is just moving into the Portland, Ore., home of her fiercely stalwart paternal grandmother and her warm, classy Aunt Loretta.
We soon learn that Rachel has miraculously survived a fall from a nine-story apartment building in which her mother, brother, and baby sister all died. Three months earlier, Rachel’s mother had left her alcoholic husband in Germany, following her “orange-haired” (i.e. white) lover to Chicago. But Nella hadn’t been prepared for boyfriend’s drinking and racism, the destitution of the projects, or for the looks and questions she gets as the mother of three brown children.
Alternating with Rachel’s first-person, coming-of-age story are chapters exploring the tragedy as understood by Nella’s last employer and only confidante in Chicago, a firmly grounded African-American librarian. Another plotline traces its lasting effects on an 11-year-old boy who lived in the building and first mistook Rachel’s falling brother for a bird. Durrow gradually, artfully, reveals the terrible circumstances behind that fall.
Rachel’s disorientation and “new-girl feeling” in her grandmother’s home goes beyond her recent trauma. Having grown up with a Scandinavian mother in the more colorblind society of an overseas Army base, this is her first time in a mostly black community. Her light-brown skin, “fuzzy” hair, and blue eyes raise questions about her racial identity that are entirely new and baffling to her.
Starting sixth grade in her new school, Rachel notes, “There are fifteen black people in the class and seven white people. And there’s me. There’s another girl who sits in the back. Her name is Carmen LaGuardia, and she has hair like mine, my same color skin, and she counts as black. I don’t understand how, but she seems to know.”
Several years later, in high school, her status remains uncertain. “They call me an Oreo. I don’t want to be white. Sometimes I want to go back to being what I was. I want to be nothing.”
Winner of the Bellwether Prize, created by Barbara Kingsolver to celebrate fiction that addresses issues of social injustice, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” comes at a time when biracial and multicultural identity – embodied so prominently by President Obama – is especially topical.
But set in the 1980s and focusing luminously on one unusually sympathetic girl overcoming apocalyptic tragedy and navigating her way through nascent sexuality and racial tensions, Durrow’s novel transcends topicality.
Like Rachel, Durrow is the light-brown-skinned, blue-eyed daughter of a Danish mother and an African-American father enlisted in the Air Force. With degrees from Stanford, Columbia Journalism School, and Yale Law School, it’s no wonder she endows her heroine with discipline and brains.
Rachel’s life, however, is clearly not Durrow’s. A detailed plot summary of “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” would give the impression of sensationalism or soap and fail to convey the power of this book. Yes, there’s alcohol and drug addiction; deaths by fire, trauma, and infection; and a runaway boy caught for a time in a downward spiral. There are mothers who lose their children, and a saintly drug counselor who loses his beloved fiancée. Through it all, what makes Durrow’s novel soar is her masterful sense of voice, her assured, nuanced handling of complex racial issues – and her heart.
After hearing the blues for the first time, Rachel feels what her mother called hyggeligt – “something like comfort and home and love all rolled into one.” She wonders what might have happened if her mother had known about such soulful music, “that sometimes there’s a way to take the sadness and turn it into a beautiful song.”
This, of course, is precisely what Durrow has done in this powerful book: taken sadness and turned it into a beautiful song.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.