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The Girl Who Fell from the Sky Paperback – January 11, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: Early on in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Rachel Morse (the girl in question) wonders about being "tender-headed." It's how her grandmother chides her for wincing at having her hair brushed, but it's also a way of understanding how Rachel grapples with the world in which she landed. Her parents, a Danish woman and an African-American G.I., tried to hold her and her siblings aloft from questions of race, and their failure there is both tragic and tenderly wrought. After sustaining an unimaginable trauma, Rachel resumes her life as a black girl, an identity she quickly learns to adopt but at heart is always reconciling with the life she knew before. Heidi W. Durrow bolsters her story with a chorus of voices that often see what Rachel can't--this is particularly true in the case of Brick, the only witness to her fall. There's a poetry to these characters that draws you into their lives, making for a beautiful and earnest coming-of-age novel that speaks as eloquently to teens as it does to adults. --Anne Bartholomew --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Durrow's debut draws from her own upbringing as the brown-skinned, blue-eyed daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I. to create Rachel Morse, a young girl with an identical heritage growing up in the early 1980s. After a devastating family tragedy in Chicago with Rachel the only survivor, she goes to live with the paternal grandmother she's never met, in a decidedly black neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Suddenly, at 11, Rachel is in a world that demands her to be either white or black. As she struggles with her grief and the haunting, yet-to-be-revealed truth of the tragedy, her appearance and intelligence place her under constant scrutiny. Laronne, Rachel's deceased mother's employer, and Brick, a young boy who witnessed the tragedy and because of his personal misfortunes is drawn into Rachel's world, help piece together the puzzle of Rachel's family. Taut prose, a controversial conclusion and the thoughtful reflection on racism and racial identity resonate without treading into political or even overtly specific agenda waters, as the story succeeds as both a modern coming-of-age and relevant social commentary. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It's clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel's first-person, child's-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious--her grandmother's unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta's smooth beauty and "potential lizard," Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes and her over-achiever status. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.
Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel's mother and younger siblings recently died in an "accident"--that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.
Interspersed with Rachel's narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family's fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel's mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella's diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel's father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.
The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it--race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. Imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps also permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.
The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It's common in novels that aspire to "post modernism" that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it's worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn't mastered plot and pacing completely.
The story is about Rachel primarily, but it is also about Jamie who becomes Brick by the end.
Rachel is half Danish and half black and must live with her grandmother in Portland, OR after an event that happens in Rachel's life when she was living in Chicago. The event is the main mystery of the book, so I will not spoil what happened. All we know is Rachel now lives with her black grandmother in a black neighborhood, her father has gone back on assignment, and her mother and brothers are gone.
A large portion of the book is not only about Rachel's past, but about how Rachel now must fit in a primarily black community as she is light skinned and bright eyed. We follow Rachel throughout her life from early childhood into adulthood as she struggles with not quite fitting into either of the two communities- the white community, where she is too dark, and the black community, where she is too white. Men find her attractive, as she has developed early, and exotic, which doesn't help with the women within each community.
As stated, it is also the story of Jamie aka Brick, who is the sole witness to the event that happened in Rachel's life. His mother is a drug using prostitute of sorts and is absent in Jamie's life. He runs away one day, as a young child in search of Rachel. He only knows she is in Portland, but can only afford a bus ticket half way there. We follow his life as a homeless child growing up on the streets who is used by two other homeless people to make money off of him. Will he find Rachel and be able to tell her what happened? Hint: yes!
The story is told through the eyes of many of the characters, primarily Rachel's, who's narration changes the older she gets. I really appreciated this as most authors don't bother to change sentence structure or tone as the person ages. Durrow did this for Rachel and Brick.
We also get glimpses into the event through the eyes of Rachel's mother, who kept a journal which is found by her neighbor and friend. Even though we get glimpses of the event and know what happened, the bigger question is why did this event happen and we are left in the dark until the very end of the book.
The characters are well developed and grow throughout the book. The writing is top notch too. Durrow definitely drew from her own life and that shows throughout the book, especially within the tension of not fitting into one culture. My copy had an interview with her, where she opens up about some of her life.
I really enjoyed this one and would highly recommend it. It might get dusty a few times in the room, but it is definitely worth the read. I gave this one 4 stars.