THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY by Heidi W. Durrow

Book Quote:

“On that last day Mor took us up to the roof, she had calculated the difference between what we couldn’t have and her ability to watch us want. The difference between her pain and ours, she decided, measured nine stories high.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (FEB 11, 2011)

It amazes me that The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel. It is poetic, poignant, beautiful and elegiac with the panache of a seasoned writer. Once I started it, I could not stop thinking about it. It haunted my days until I finished it. Durrow has a talent that is rare and brilliant, like the northern lights.

The novel is about Rachel, the lone survivor of a fall from an apartment building. How did she fall? What made her family go off the roof-top? Told in different voices, the story unfolds slowly and the reader is let in on family destinies, secrets, shame, and the legacy of alcohol.

The story starts off in Chicago. It is told from the viewpoints of Rachel, a bi-racial girl who is in fifth grade when the story opens and is in high school at its end. There is Nella, Rachel’s mother, who is Danish, and whose surviving diary tells her story. Roger, Rachel’s father, is a black man in the military who meets Nella in Europe and who leaves Rachel with his mother after the fall. Laronne is Nella’s supervisor at work who comes across Nella’s diaries after her death. And then there is Brick, a young man of the Chicago tenements whose stolen copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America is his most prized possession.

As this haunting novel begins, Brick, a budding ornithologist, is watching for birds to fall in the alleyway of his building. He is hoping for an egret but usually what he sees are falling trash bags and detritus from the upper floors. This time, he sees what he thinks is a huge bird falling and he runs downstairs to see what kind of bird it is.

“He was certain the silhouette of the great egret had passed his courtyard window…When he finally reached the courtyard, he saw that his bird was not a bird at all. His bird was a boy and a girl and a mother and a child. The mother, the girl, the child. They looked like they were sleeping, eyes closed, listless. The baby was still in her mother’s arms, a gray porridge pouring from the underside of her head. The girl was heaped on top of the boy’s body, a bloody helpless pillow.”

This sight becomes imprinted on Brick and effects the course of his entire life.

Rachel is the only survivor of the fall and, after her hospitalization, is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland, Oregon.   With her blue eyes and “good” hair, she becomes very much aware of race. There are the white girls and there are the black girls. She fits in nowhere though she tries to make a new self after the fall. Her mother, “Mor,” had done her best to shield Rachel and her siblings from race, to see themselves as unique beings, not as a color. This was much easier to do in Europe than in the United States. As Rachel navigates the racial terrain of her new world, she is stymied over and over by the subtleties and outright cruelties of race.

Rachel watches her grandmother drink her “contributions” and sees how the amount of her drinking increases daily. Rachel is very aware of the impact of alcohol on her family’s lives. Nella was in recovery when she died and her diary begins each day with the number of days she has been sober. Roger, Nella’s father, is an alcoholic, and it becomes clear that Rachel’s grandmother has a huge problem with her “contributions.” Though Roger does not visit Rachel once she is out of the hospital, his story is told through Brick who met him in the hospital. There, Roger shared family secrets with Brick and made him promise to one day tell these to Rachel.

The story unfolds in layers, slowly and magnificently. The reader has questions answered page by page until the story of the fall, the family secrets and history, are all given to us in haunting and precious bits. This is more than a story of a bi-racial girl and her ability to adapt to a new world and the horror of her legacy. It is a story of resiliency and hope and awareness and insight. Rachel is one of the strongest and clear characters that I have come across in literature. This is a book to be treasured and re-read. It is that good.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 127 readers
PUBLISHER: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (January 11, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Heidi W. Durrow
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another “fall off the roof” novel:

Another “mixed race” book:

Bibliography:

February 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Bellwether, Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Family Matters, US Midwest, US Northwest, y Award Winning Author

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