Heidi W. Durrow’s novel is both the story of a woman learning to negotiate biracial life and that of the lone survivor of a horrible tragedy.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is propelled by a mystery: a woman and her three young children have fallen from a Chicago rooftop, and nobody knows who’s responsible. “They looked like they were sleeping, eyes closed, listless. The baby was still in her mother’s arms, a gray sticky porridge pouring from the underside of her head. The pillow was heaped on top of the boy’s body, a bloody helpless pillow.” The sole survivor of the fall is 11-year-old Rachel Morse, whose mother was Danish and whose father was a black G.I., and the novel orbits around her life in the wake of this tragedy.
Sent across the country to live with her grandmother, Rachel becomes keenly aware of her biracial identity in a primarily black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon during the 1980s. Blue-eyed and “light-skinned-ed,” she speaks English and Danish, and finds it difficult to carve a place for herself as the new girl: “They tell me it is bad to have ashy knees. They say stay out of the rain so my hair doesn’t go back. They say white people don’t use washrags, and I realize now, at Grandma’s, I do. They have a language I don’t know but I understand.”
This is the debut novel from Heidi W. Durrow, winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 Bellwether Prize “for best manuscript addressing issues of social justice.” The precision of the award puts a reader on guard for a polemic; while the grizzly premise of the novel suggests something closer to a whodunnit. Yet Durrow avoids taking either of these obvious paths, instead delivering a layered narrative that weaves themes of race, class, and beauty into a page-turning plot.
The complexity requires an ambitious structure. Durrow dares to play with both time and point of view—Rachel’s narrative in the first person, witnesses to the rooftop tragedy in third person, journal entries from another key character. Each perspective serves to unravel the mystery one step further, as when Laronne, a neighbor who employed Rachel’s mother, speaks to a curious reporter at the scene of the fall: “A woman doesn’t sacrifice her babies that way. No matter what’s gone wrong. She’s not gonna hurt no kids. But maybe that man did.”
The story never strays too far from its central question—What happened that fateful morning?—but Durrow is at her best when the tragedy is off center-stage, when she explores Rachel’s private, painful moments. Under the care of a decidedly old-school grandmother, Rachel strains to understand her two heritages, a struggle brought into sharp relief when a family friend joins her grandmother in singing “Amazing Grace” in the aftermath of a funeral: :They finish the song with pitch perfect harmony… I want to be Lakeisha… She’s hugging Grandma, getting the sad stuck feeling out of her with a song. I am fourteen and I know that I am black, but I can’t make the Gospel sound right from my mouth.”
In other moments, clinging to her Danish identity, Rachel finds her mother’s language bubbling up as if from a forgotten source. “I don’t want being Danish to be something that I can put on and take off. I don’t want the Danish in me [to be] something that time makes me leave behind.”
Some of the most striking passages are flashbacks that focus on Rachel’s mother Nella’s efforts to stay sober, and to forge a better life in a country that is oppressively foreign to her. In one scene, Nella innocently refers to her own children by a racial slur that she heard her drunken boyfriend call them—she’d understood it to be a pet name. “My little jigaboos. That’s what Doug calls them. It’s so cute,” she tells a neighbor. The neighbor replies, “Nella, don’t say that again. It’s not cute.”
Throughout the book, Durrow underscores how our identities are shaped by those who surround us, for better or worse. At times the novel strains under its elaborate structure, and the pacing feels awkward as a result. A key secondary character disappears for several chapters, and conveniently returns “after roaming the country for the last six years.” Yet these weaknesses are only symptomatic of Durrow’s willingness to take gambles—a multitude of voices, a layered chronology, and urgent social themes.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky strikes a powerful balance between the story of a young woman learning to negotiate biracial life, and that of the lone survivor of a tragedy. “I think about these things,” Rachel says,
the way that science or math tells us certain things. Math can explain the reason there’s a one out of four chance that I’d have blue eyes. But it doesn’t explain why me. And science or math can’t explain what makes one person lucky, or what makes a person lucky enough to survive.”