The question “What are you?” haunts the girl who fell from the sky

Author Heidi Durrow reads from her prizewinning novel Thursday evening (Jan. 13) at the Northwest African American Museum.

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Heidi Durrow

Author Heidi Durrow reads from her prizewinning novel Thursday evening (Jan. 13) at the Northwest African American Museum.

Reviewers around the nation have praised The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Portland native Heidi Durrow, with an enthusiasm bordering on rapturous. The complex drama of race in contemporary America that Durrow creates through the developing insights of her book’s young narrator, Rachel, certainly deserves applause.

Rachel shows readers what it’s like to be a biracial girl living among white people who delude themselves into thinking their society is post-racial and among black people who know better. She comes of age amid individuals of both races, some of them well-intentioned, who are so puzzled by her blue eyes and brown skin that the question she is asked countless times is “What are you?”   

At the same time, the girl is trying to assemble the pieces of a different puzzle: What caused her mother to fall with her three children from the nine-story-high roof of the Chicago tenement that was their home? Rachel, the sole survivor of the tragedy, who is about 10 years old when the novel opens, also wants to know where her father is and why he disappeared from her life.

Answers to the latter question and some others remain unclear at the end of the narrative. This lack of what we Americans call closure is curiously satisfying, perhaps because so many successful novels today conclude with each thread improbably present, accounted for, and neatly tied up. Durrow’s more lifelike open-endedness reflects the unfinished, evolving self the teenaged Rachel is in the process of becoming when the narrative breaks off.

Through flashbacks the reader learns that Rachel and her siblings were born to a Danish mother, Nella, who fell in love with an African-American serviceman while he was in the military overseas. After a heartbreaking loss ruined the marriage, Nella brought their children to the U.S. and tried to make a life as a single mother in Chicago, an effort that ended in disaster. The novel opens when Rachel, having amazingly survived that fall “from the sky,” is living with her paternal grandmother in a Portland neighborhood that changes from white to largely black during Rachel’s school years.

The girl counts the days until her father will come for her. But in the church vestibule where she kisses Anthony, a black classmate who is fascinated by her eyes, skin, and hair, she sees a stained-glass window with the image of someone kneeling before a vacant seat. “God stands to the side,” thinks Rachel, “wondering why we keep asking for wishes to come true from empty chairs.”

Memories of her family gradually grow dim and uncertain. When the Danish phrases she learned from her mother fade as she falls in love with new vocabulary from the many books she reads, she asks herself, “What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

And Rachel’s sense of self shifts as unpredictably as her language. In school, learning about black history, she gradually realizes that the stories “also had something to do with me," even though she is “light-skinned-ed” and has no black friends because “Black girls don’t like me.” Except for dark, beautiful Aunt Loretta, her father’s sister and once one of Portland’s Rose Festival princesses, Rachel comes to believe that “black women are not as pretty as white women.”

She notices other differences, too. Hiking to a frozen waterfall one day with her aunt, she observes that among the hikers gazing at the cataract of ice, “There are no black people in Nature today. Only us.”

Unfortunately, the storyline connecting these and other fine epiphanies has a thin, piecemeal quality. The point of view skips around among Rachel, her family members, and a neighbor boy from Chicago who witnessed the fall of Nella and the children and who (in an unlikely coincidence) just happens to arrive in Portland in time to encounter Rachel again in his late teens. Speaking up now and then is Nella herself, in passages from her diary that are read after her death by another Chicago neighbor we repeatedly visit but scarcely know. The various voices are not particularly individuated or distinctive, and while the jumbled nature of the story might be said to be intentional, meant to reflect Rachel's ignorance and confusion, the dominant impression is of the author's unsteady narrative skills.

Still, Durrow is young, and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is her first novel. Last year it won the Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver, for the best new fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.

The paperback release of Durrow's book brings her to Seattle this week, where she will read at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Thursday (Jan. 13) at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 from www.brownpapertickets, (1-800-838-3006), or at the door.

Heidi Durrow, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), $13.95.


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