February 2010

Amy Hanridge

fiction

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is a coming-of-age tale following the young character, Rachel, over several years. Rachel moves at age eleven from Chicago to Oregon to live with her grandmother after a tragic accident in which Rachel is injured, and her mother, brother and sister all die. (This gives nothing away, as the deaths are revealed early in the book.) A pressing question throughout the book, in fact, is whether or not Rachel’s mother pushed her children and herself off the family’s nine-story apartment building.

This, obviously, is not an insubstantial story; the novel won The Bellwether Prize for fiction addressing issues of social justice. Rachel is biracial, and the scenes with her struggling to adjust to life and school in a predominantly black community as a “light-skinned” girl who “talks white” are as moving and poignant as the scenes depicting the terrible central event of the book. Durrow’s simple and smart writing, however, keeps the story of Rachel’s hard life, and of the hard lives of her family before her and of the people around her, from feeling too gloomy or maudlin. The chapters written in Rachel’s early-adolescent first person perspective are especially strong and believable, and benefit the novel even without the surrounding mystery and misfortune of Rachel and her family and friends.

This novel also offers a fresh angle on race relations in America, and on what it means to be biracial -- Rachel’s mother, Nella, is not only white, but Danish. Nella’s and Rachel’s outlooks, shaped by Scandinavian sensibilities, and spiced with the Danish words and concepts Durrow introduces throughout the book, afford the reader an almost anthropological participant-observer vantage point on race in America in the 1980s, when the novel is set. We see assumptions and excuses more clearly when they are mirrored back at us from the Danish-newcomer perspective. Flashbacks of Nella’s outsider status provide some of the saddest and most memorable scenes of the novel, when she is continually learning the boundaries and answering the intrusive questions of race, and attempting to fit those in with her own definitions of family.

While this novel does address such large issues as race and perceptions of race across cultures, and while it was awarded such an important prize as The Bellwether for something as lofty as “social justice,” the book itself is a fast read. Durrow knows how to write sympathetic characters and to maintain a reader’s interest. This short novel is one easily finished in a single sitting, not only because of its length, but also because Durrow knows how to write a book that is hard to put down.

The narrative does jump around quite a bit in time and perspective, and it is not always clear the craft gymnastics are necessary to the telling of the story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this brave first novel is that it doesn’t break down under the weight of all that hopping structure. Ultimately, there is a straight story underlying the shifts of time and viewpoint. That straight story, of a family that is being remembered “as long as there was someone left to tell” is well worth the read. When one considers that Durrow has achieved with her first novel something reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or even her masterpiece Beloved, then The Girl Who Fell from the Sky soars to the height of a novel not to be missed.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
Algonquin
ISBN: 1565126807
256 Pages