What happens when a “light-skinned-ed” girl wakes in a hospital, the lone survivor? Her mother (or Mor as she calls her), and her siblings’ all dead.
In Heidi Durrow’s debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, numerous voices come together to tell the harsh and devastatingly sad story of Rachel, a young teenage, half Danish, half African-American girl forced to live with her Southern, somewhat stereotypical, grandmother and search for a role—any role—in her new life after she leaves the hospital.
Characters joining together, helping to forge an identity for Rachel as she struggles to realize who she is, propel Durrow’s novel, but this is more than a story of race and self-discovery in the face of adversity; it’s an intimate, richly detailed account of a young girl trying to survive. “I don’t want being Danish,” Rachel thinks, “to be something that I can put on and take off. I don’t want the Danish in me to be something time makes me leave behind.”
As if coming of age isn’t difficult enough, Rachel’s quest begins with girls at her new school not liking her for “acting white”. While reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask, Rachel starts to understand, “wherever he goes, the Negro remains the Negro.” She attempts to deconstruct her past while inventing a new future that is drastically dissimilar from what she knows. “That makes me think,” she says, “of how the other black girls at school think I want to be white.” Her straight hair, her blue eyes: they call her an Oreo. “…I try not to let the black girls like Tamika see me talk to Tracy, because Tracy is a white girl. And the way they say that—white girl—it feels like a dangerous thing to be.”
Engrossed in Rachel’s loss, each character has an uncertain position in Rachel’s life, yet they are written so assuredly it makes this telling soar.
“It’s a funny thing to think about: moving toward extinction.” Rachel is aware and wants everyone around her to understand what she understands, “…I think maybe I’m already extinct in a strange way – there’s no way to make another me.”
Rachel is right. Reminiscent of Wally Lamb’s coming-of-age She’s Come Undone, coupled with the complexity of voice and point of view much like a Julia Alvarez novel, Durrow has achieved a haunting page-turner.
In an interview with NPR, host Michele Norris commented, “…as you well know, there’s a long line of stories…about the tragic mulatto trope. Why does this continue? And do you in any way feel like you were pulled into that undertow?”
Durrow’s response: “I hope I wasn’t. I hope that people can read this book as a break from that tradition. I think that tragedies generally end with a tragedy and there’s nothing learned. And my book begins with a tragedy and at the end I hope that people have learned something, that there’s a note of triumph in that.”
I did. I learned something. And the triumph isn’t only Rachel’s; it belongs to Durrow, too. If any debut deserves a standing ovation, it’s my contention we shall all stand and honor the timelessness of what Durrow has created, here.