The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/Workman Publishing, 264 pages
At first glance, Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From
the Sky, seems like a typical coming-of-age story stuffed with social commentary. But in this particular telling, the difference is in the finer details of the story.
The girl is Rachel Morse, and the reader is introduced to her world after a tragic accident leaves her orphaned and adopted by her paternal grandmother. As a child, Rachel doesn’t fully comprehend the social implications of her mixed Danish and African American heritage until she moves into a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, to live with her grandmother. While Rachel experiences alienation from most of her classmates, she finds a niche for herself academically. And as she recounts fond memories of her mother, or mor (in Danish), Rachel hardly mentions the incident that led to her death, and it is only through the perspectives of a young neighbor, Rachel’s distressed father, and her late mother’s diary entries that clues are revealed.
The story, though not an autobiography, is based on true events. Durrow shares the same interracial identity as her main character, and she allows Rachel room to grow through the inherent obstacles of being neither white nor black “enough” for her classmates and even her grandmother.
Durrow’s description of Rachel is one of a prodigiously gifted young girl who makes straight A’s, minds authority figures to a fault, and withstands more than her fair share of childhood ridicule. Her grandmother warns that no man wants a woman so intelligent, and Rachel’s academic excellence could be seen as a form of rebellion. However, Rachel maintains her facade of obedience longer than necessary, and this mere trace of fallibility leaves the reader with little opportunity to sympathize with her. It is only near the end of the book that she finally takes a swing at one of her verbally abusive classmates and succumbs to sexual temptation in an attempt to find a sense of affection that was lost with the death of her mother and siblings.
Though Durrow brings an authentic, even poetic, voice to the story, what makes it stand apart are the layers of conflict that the main character must struggle with to find comfort and confidence in her own skin. It’s more than just ridicule from classmates or harsh expectations from her grandmother— in the absence of her mother and siblings, and with a father who abandoned her, Rachel has no immediate family to help her make sense of her identity.
The most important change that Rachel needs to make is to embrace herself as an individual instead of fixating on an identity she thinks is defined by a certain ethnicity, and though this resolution is hinted at toward the end of the book, it isn’t fully realized. But to help her make peace with who she is now, she must first accept the truth about her memories of a violent past. By the end of the book, she is on her way.
— Amy Kuhre Heidi W. Durrow reads from and signs “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” at 6 p.m. Friday, March 12, at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 988-4226.