Friday, February 5, 2010

"The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" by Heidi W. Durrow

Summary: Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and African American G.I., grew up in Germany.  With her light brown skin and blue eyes, Rachel did not see herself as anything but her parents' child; she was unaware that, to Americans, she was black.  When tragedy strikes her mother and siblings shortly after moving to America, Rachel moves in with her paternal grandmother.  In Portland, Rachel feels alienated from her family and schoolmates, unable to fit into categories of white or black, and she struggles with memories of her mother.  Although told mostly from Rachel's point of view, the novel also follows Rachel's father, her mother's boss, and a young boy who witnessed the family tragedy as Rachel attempts to discover who she is beyond others' labels.

Musings: Durrow has created a unique story that combines a young woman's search for identity with a family's history of shame and secrets.  The novel begins with Rachel narrating her move to Portland and is told in stark, simple prose, much like Annie John (a novel the book is compared to in the cover flap).  The book does not fall into magical realism like Kincaid's work, but it does follow Rachel's thinking as she, unable to reconcile the "new girl" (her new self) with her previous self, dissociates and thinks of herself in third person.  In Portland, Rachel becomes acutely aware of her lack of belonging.  She is "light-skinned-ed;" she "talk[s]" white" and can't help but judge her grandmother for her lack of formal English.  She fails to fall into pre-established categories: "I learn that black people don't have blue eyes.  I learn that I am black.  I have blue eyes.  I put all these new facts into the new girl" (10).

Meanwhile, pieces of Rachel's parents' history are filled in.  Both parents are filled with shame for their inability to protect their children, although their shame comes from different sources.  Rachel's mother exemplifies a woman unable to to accept or actively reject that many Americans do not see her children as her own and see them only as a skin color.

The detachment of the first part of the novel distanced me as a reader, but as Rachel grew, I grew closer to her and her story.  The tragedy piles on thick at times, but the second half of the novel touchingly covers the nuances of Rachel's development: her feelings for her aunt's fiance Drew, her conflicts with her judgmental but well-meaning grandmother, and her relationship with a liberal white college boy.

Durrow's own background closely mirrors Rachel's although this is clearly a work of fiction.  The novel skillfully explores the complexities of racial identity and relationships today.  Despite the slow beginning and excess of tragedy, I'd highly recommend the book.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("New in 2010" category).


  1. I saw a banner ad for this one somewhere and was intrigued - I think I may have to read it. The racial identity question/crisis and Portland setting sound great to me. The only thing I'm not sure about is 'excess of tragedy.' Maybe I'll just read it on a dark day? *smile*

    Nice review!

  2. Fortunately I didn't find all the tragedy especially depressing, but just a bit contrived (as if the really interesting issues could only be emphasized through extraordinary calamity). The second half of the book really picked up for me, though, when it stuck more to what I would consider "normal" events. It's worth a try!