From the BLURB:
This debut novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. With her strict African American grandmother as her new guardian, Rachel moves to a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring mixed attention her way. Growing up in the 1980s, she learns to swallow her overwhelming grief and confronts her identity as a biracial young woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.
In the tradition of Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, here is a portrait of a young girl - and society's ideas of race, class, and beauty.
There is Rachael with one good ear, her mother’s blue eyes and papa’s mocha skin. She is the new girl, moving from Chicago to go and live with Grandma in Los Angeles, her father’s mother. Since going to live with Grandma and her pretty Aunt Loretta, Rachael has not spoken about her mother, Mor. She has not spoken Danish words, or about why her father has not come from her. She is the new girl, this is her new life, and she has to bottle her real self inside.
There is Jamie, who thought the boy was a bird flying down below his window. But later, Jamie understands that it was no bird he saw, but a family – a mama, and her three babies, all falling from the sky. And when reporters ask Jamie what he saw, he gives them a new name, ‘Brick’, and says he saw a man on that rooftop.
Laronne worked with Nella, and knows that the woman loved her babies. Maybe she’d made some bad decisions – leaving her army husband in Europe and running off to Chicago with that red-headed white man. But, deep down, Laronne knows that Nella loved those babies and it must have been foul-play that took them to that rooftop. Foul-play and a small miracle that saved the little girl.
‘The Girl Who Fell From The Sky’ was the 2010 debut novel by Heidi Durrow.
I started reading this book, and kept thinking of the Stanley J. Forman photograph, ‘Fire on Marlborough Street.’
It’s a frighteningly beautiful photo – a mother and her child leaping from their burning building - but sad when you research and discover that the woman pictured did not survive, but her child did. And while the circumstances between that falling and the one Durrow depicts in her debut are vastly different, they both raise questions about the surviving child . . .
What’s frustrating about ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ is that the supposed act of filicide that triggers the story is not the focus throughout the whole book. In fact, there were times when I thought Durrow paid a disservice to her wonderful character of Rachael by not concentrating more on her fall from a rooftop. Instead, the novel delves into deeper explorations of hereditary addiction, race, class and burgeoning sexuality.
The book is told in alternating chapters from different points-of-view, sometimes in present-day (1980’s America) and sometimes backpedalling to before and after the fall. A huge concentration in the book is Rachel moving from Chicago to a black community in Los Angeles – where her differences and skin colour make her a target for jealous girls and curious stares when she goes out with her dark-skinned Aunt Loretta and Grandma.
Rachel’s father was an African-American GI stationed in Europe, where he met Nella, a Danish girl. Through tumultuous years they began a family and succumbed to alcoholism, until Nella left with another man, taking her children to Chicago while Roger sunk lower into his addictions. In Chicago, Nella and the children battled poverty and the ugly racism still present in American culture – where everyone cares about ‘black’ and ‘white’ and Nella feels unable to shield her babies from racial slurs and a disapproving society.
Durrow writers with a lovely cadence and lyricism – some of her sentences are just sublime;
This is the picture I want to remember: Grandma looks something like pride. Like a whistle about to blow.
And she really excels at poking the bruise of racial identity that digs beyond ‘black’ and ‘white’ but has Rachel questioning what kind of black she is, and where her Danish background fits into her identity;
Jesse Jackson wants us to be African-American now. I don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t know any black people who have ever been to Africa. It’s like calling me Danish-American even though I've never been to Denmark. But at least I speak Danish. I don’t know a single black person who speaks Swahili or any of those other African things they speak. Then there’s page 173: “Wherever he goes, the Negro remains a Negro.” That makes me think of how the other black girls think I want to be white. 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.
I did enjoy the first-half of the book, which reads as a coming-of-age interspersed with mystery, as both Laronne and Brick continually think on the deaths of Nella and her children, and their own curious involvement in the aftermath. But Part II of the story begins at page 176 of this 264-page book, and everything after is a bit of a dud.
I was hoping that as eleven-year-old Rachel grew into a sixteen-year-old lonely, confused girl she would dig deeper into the event that changed her life and killed nearly all of her family (and caused her Pa to never return). A discovered newspaper clipping suggests that she will follow clues to the terrible day . . . but Durrow doesn’t lead us there. Instead she keeps veering back to discussion of racial identity; again and again and again. And while this was powerful in the first-half of the novel, further ostracizing Rachel when she leaves everything she knows behind to go and live with a Grandmother who never makes mention of Mor . . . by the second-half, I wanted a meatier exploration. I wanted to know how a survivor of filicide continues to live with love in her heart for that mother.
I felt like Rachel never acknowledged the deaths in the novel that so informed her life and loneliness. Half-way through another death occurs that is so random and strange, that it wasn’t until the words were laid out on the page that I even realized this character’s passing – because there’s an odd time-leap, and nobody seems to acknowledge the death terribly.
The second-half of the novel also delves into what an attractive girl Rachel is, how all the boys are chasing her and the girls hating her. This, again, could have been a more interesting exploration if there wasn’t the far more epic topic of her mother’s death and killing to gnaw at the reader, constantly making us wish that Durrow would go there, to that dark place. . .
As it is, the novel’s end leads us towards outlandish coincidences that feel written for plot’s sake than any sort of realism that has, up until that point, been adhered to. Rachel’s eventual acknowledgement of the ‘falling’ reads rushed and hollow for coming so close to the end, and after far too much time was spent on lengthy explorations into her racial identity.
Look, I really enjoyed reading this book and looked forward to cracking it open for my train-ride home. But I feel like lots of my enjoyment came from anticipating and dreading when Durrow would poke at a bigger bruise than racial-identity . . . when she would lead Rachel to question her mother’s love and motive, and how she lives loving her and knowing what she did. But Durrow, for all her lyrical words, never takes Rachel or the reader to that difficult place, and as a result the novel lacks something vital.
I would read another novel by Heidi Durrow, but only with the hope that she develops into a tougher writer.