Monday, January 18, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow

Today I want to talk to you about an exciting local writer whose book, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is due out next month. I was fortunate enough to receive a press copy, and once I got it, I dropped everything else I was reading and focused in on this little book. In her acknowledgments, the author, Heidi Durrow, gives thanks to Barbara Kingsolver, who apparently was instrumental in helping her win the 2008 Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice. Like Kingsolver, this is a writer who insists on social, political content to her writing, and while she also weaves a very good story, it is obvious throughout that the story is secondary to the message, and that the message is something this woman has lived as well as observed.

The story is about Rachel, a teenaged biracial girl who is trying to deal with the racist society in which she lives, and at the same time with the death of her mother and siblings. Born in Europe, with a Danish mother and an African-American father, she understands little of how Americans (as well as much of the world) act towards racial and ethnic minorities until she moves to Chicago, and then, after the death of most of her family, to Portland to be raised by her dad’s mother.    

While the story is primarily about Rachel, the writer does quite a credible job of telling the story through the eyes of several characters, even managing to write through Rachel’s deceased mother’s eyes via journal entries found and narrated by Laronne, a sympathetic Chicago neighbor. Another young character, roughly Rachel’s age, is a third or fourth voice in the story. Known by the name Jamie as a youngster, and later choosing the name Brick for himself as he enters the world on his own, he is a witness to tragic events in Rachel’s young life in Chicago, and then re-enters and even in some sense saves her years later in Portland.

Reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, here is a young girl with bright blue eyes and pale brown skin who encounters racism in so many of its various forms. It is obvious that Durrow, herself, is maddened and frustrated by the confusion of color, eye color, skin color, hair color with the stereotyping of huge groups of people. And while she realizes how derogatory so many of the words are that refer to color, she also finds terms like African-American odd and inaccurate. Most of the so-called black people she knows have never been to Africa. She lives in Chicago with a Danish mother, but it would seem odd to call herself Danish-American; she knows a bit of Danish picked up from her mother, and certainly she treasures so much of what she remembers of her mother and her mother’s attempts to protect her and her biracial siblings from racism, but she isn’t Danish. And when she looks down at her own skin, it is not black, nor is it white. Indeed, in what sense is she even American? Certainly America is a country that has not been kind to her mother, nor to her siblings, nor to her.

I don’t intend to give away much of the plot of this book, though it not really the plot that drives the book. Instead, what Durrow manages to do is show how individual people can make a huge difference in the lives of children—can quite literally save them simply by compassion and really paying attention. And it is not only people of color who can and do make a difference, it is instead those who understand the absurdity of basing anything on skin color or economic condition, who try to understand the world they find themselves in, and to act.  Brick is a character who makes a difference, and it is never quite clear just what the whole story is about his ethnicity. We know he loves his heroin addicted mother, though he finally has to leave her to save himself, and that he knows next to nothing of his absent father—Indian, Hispanic, brown, black, white? We know Brick is saved from alcohol and drug addiction by a man of color, Drew, who has found his own life by acting on behalf of people whom the dominant society would prefer simply to throw away. And we see the domino effect of such individual salvations as Brick keeps a focused eye on Rachel, catches her as she begins to fall, shores her up, sees her for the wonderful and bright and worthwhile person she is.

It is a sad story, and Rachel’s life is a sad life, but she learns from her choices and the choices of those around her. She discovers that her beauty is dangerous, met with envy and resentment by girls her own age, both black and white, and interest of the wrong sort from boys and men of all colors. Even the rich young white man who works on the streets and at a shelter, seeming genuinely to care for others and really not to judge by color or wealth, cannot stifle the urge to make sexual advances to Rachel, to use alcohol and charm in order to be with, really to take, what he calls his little Mocha girl. He, too, another man who sees her color and her beauty first; she must wash him out her skin and out of her life.

Brick, certainly much more loving towards Rachel than Jesse, the rich boy, is careful not to confuse lust and love—careful to distinguish his own wants and needs from hers. Yes, he loves her, maybe is even in love with her, but his concern is for her and who she is.  In Rachel’s words:
Brick puts his arm around me. When he looks at me, it feels like no one has really seen me since the accident. In his eyes, I’m not the new girl. I’m not the color of my skin. I’m a story. One with a past and a future unwritten.
I think I won’t say more of this book except to say that I hope you will pick it up and read it. The writing is good and straightforward, though I think we can expect even better writing from her in the future. Perhaps some of the plot seems at least a bit strained, the story a bit too much in the service of the message. But given the thousands of books that are written and consumed simply in order to entertain a more-or-less unthinking audience, it is a pleasure to read such a serious book by such an obviously bright and compassionate young woman.

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