The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
by Heidi W. Durrow
Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan
Distinguished by poetic interior monologues, short but cinematic chapters and characters suggested rather than drawn, Durrow's novel is a welcome entry in the crucial but cliché-prone genre of American race narratives. Based on a real incident, it tells the story of Rachel, the pubescent daughter of Roger, a black GI, and a Danish woman, Nella, who meet at an overseas military base and eventually marry. The relationship is troubled from the start, and after the couple moves to the U.S. in the 1980s, things really fall apart. They split, and Nella struggles to find her footing in a strange land made stranger by the fact that she's no longer a Dane, but a foreign white woman living in largely black Chicago with biracial children who are simply regarded as a lighter shade of Negro. In a tragedy of Greek proportions that drives the book, Rachel loses her family; the lone survivor, she is shipped off to her paternal grandmother in Portland. It is in this improbable place where her life as a black girl officially begins.
Rachel hardly knows what to make of her circumstances, though she learns to keep up appearances, the first of many lessons about living black and in the permanent shadow between poor and doing all right. The deprivation is not just economic. Her Southern-born grandmother dotes on her pretty hair -- non-kinky, non-black -- but Rachel hears only the absence of comparison with Nella's. "She doesn't say anything about my mother, because we both know that the new girl has no mother," Rachel notes. "The new girl can't be new and still remember. I am not the new girl. But I will pretend."
Durrow's greatest strength as a writer is patience. Rachel's voice is at first detached to the point of being out of body; as she matures and begins to understand what she came from and who she is, she absorbs the new truths around her with less fear and more curiosity. Even in her tightly limned black world, there is variety and humor, poignancy and absurdity: her Aunt Loretta's restless ambition to become an artist; Loretta's boyfriend Drew's efforts to transmit his political activism to his own indifferent, teenage daughter; Grandma's debilitating nips at the sherry bottle that she calls her "contributions." Rachel accepts this odd new life and at times even loves it, but she is held at arm's length by both blacks and whites who see her difference and expect her to act accordingly.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is that rare thing: a post-postmodern novel with heart that weaves a circle of stories about race and self-discovery into a tense and sometimes terrifying whole. Yet it follows an old thematic tradition in American literature that being black is by definition a tragedy. However one comes by one's blackness -- Rachel "fell" into it from another country -- it is always something to escape, to struggle against and, finally, to endure. We may be in the age of Obama, but the troubled black story from which we like to imagine we've liberated ourselves lives on.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times.