A coming of age for a biracial girl
Does truth, as well as beauty, exist in the eye of the beholder? That’s one of the questions posed in Bellwether Prize-winner Heidi Durrow’s heartbreaking debut, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.’’ Others - about race and memory, love and family - follow hard on its heels in this dramatic coming-of-age novel.
For Rachel, this smart book’s main narrator, that first question is of primary importance. The daughter of an African-American GI and a Danish mother, she has come to racially segregated Portland, Ore., at age 11 to learn that her blue eyes - her mother’s eyes - are attractive, but white. Her “mocha’’ coloring, meanwhile, makes her “light-skinned-ed’’ but most definitely black. She has lived most of her life abroad, and these distinctions are new to her, as new as having to cope without her loving and seemingly color-blind mother.
Now in the care of her Texas-born, African-American grandmother, Rachel finds herself immersed in a culture she doesn’t understand. Music and dance are valued, she learns, while her love of books is disdained by the tough girls who bully her. As she starts to develop, her striking looks lead to more interest - and more animosity - from these girls and the boys they value. Growing up over the course of the novel, Rachel tries to make sense of these contradictions and her own warring emotions, bottling up all the feelings she can’t manage in an “imaginary bottle.’’ “It’s blue glass with a cork stopper,’’ as she pictures it. “My stomach tightens and my eyeballs get hot. I put all of that inside the bottle.’’
Being the new girl is always hard, and Durrow does a deft job of showing how looking different doesn’t make it any easier. But, right from the start, Rachel has more reasons than usual for her dissociation from her emotions. Rachel is with her grandmother because her mother, brother, and sister all died, falling from the roof of their Chicago apartment building. Her mother had left her father, and not understanding his fears, taken the children to the States with a new boyfriend. In Chicago, she was hit by the racism that would define her biracial children.
The result of that culture shock was the tragedy, which Jamie, a neighbor boy, witnessed. Rachel was the sole survivor. However, her injuries were severe, and her memory of that day remains unclear. And even as that neighbor, himself the victim of addiction and abuse, searches for her across country to tell her what he witnessed, her version of what happened will continue to evolve.
Told in alternating narratives, with Rachel’s voice the most prominent, this is at times a painful book to read. Rachel’s struggles with identity and her blossoming sexuality often set her at odds with her new world. “I wasn’t supposed to have a future,’’ she yells after one misadventure. “It doesn’t matter what I do. . . . It’s my life to throw away.’’ Brick, as her former neighbor renames himself, has an equally traumatic coming of age, and Durrow does a masterful job of depicting their struggles through suggestion and understatement. Roger, Rachel’s father, and Laronne, her mother’s boss, have smaller roles, largely filling in bits of history, while Nella, Rachel’s mother, is represented by her journal, which details her battle with alcoholism and her awakening to the hatred around her in touching, stilted English.
With so many viewpoints, the switches can be abrupt, disrupting a narrative just when it seems to be picking up steam. When the story jumps back to Laronne’s or Roger’s memories, in particular, the shift threatens to derail the story, despite the clarity of each voice. But Rachel’s growing awareness, particularly set against her poor mother’s innocence, keeps the reader in thrall. Rachel is a true heroine - a survivor - but it is still hard to pick yourself up and move on after such a fall.
Clea Simon is the Cambridge-based author, most recently, of “Grey Matters.’’