The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Picked this up randomly at the library. So glad I did. An unexpected gem! Review to come.
I picked up Heidi Durrow’s, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010), while browsing the fiction section at the local branch of my neighborhood library. Generally I put books that I know I want to read on hold there and then go pick them up. It has become exceptionally rare for me to simply browse the bookshelves at the library and try something based on the cover or inside flaps.
Honestly, I don’t know what made me pick it up. Was it the cover that boasted “winner of The Bellwether Prize in Fiction?” I don’t even know what the Bellwether prize is or what criterion is used to determine the winner. Or was it the favorable blurbs on the back of the book that includes a quote from a fiction teacher that I recently took a class with? Or was it the simple description on the inside cover about a bi-racial girl of Danish and Black heritage that gripped me? Probably all of those things. I also liked that it was a debut novel about society’s idea of race, class and beauty as the back cover pointed out. Of course, it was much more than that.
Since I live in Portland (I’m going on fourteen years) I felt a kinship with the story in a way that I didn’t expect to. Durrow paints a picture of familiar places around town in a way that I hadn’t seen them before. Since I didn’t group up here, it gave me a glimpse at what it would have been like to be a teenager here. We are taken to the Salvation Army where one of the characters works and then to a familiar park I’ve visited many times. It surprised me to feel such a close connection to the setting of a novel. I felt that it gave me more insight than the average reader because I already knew the setting and the type of culture that the narrator was surrounded by.
Another surprise was the slow and eventual realization that the main character, Rachel, a young girl and the most central character of the novel, had arrived in Portland from Chicago because of a tragic accident. Durrow does an expert job of slowly revealing what those events were and how they left her without a mother or a father to care for her. I’m not giving anything away by saying this. The haunting tale of a past that follows her throughout her life, in both tangible and intangible ways, carries the reader through this novel. Durrow shows us Rachel’s growth over time with all types of growing pains. She meets a boy and he reminds her of the Danish heritage her mother gave her. She speaks Dutch with his mother at a dinner she is invited to. But the boy also reminds her that she is black and that he has never slept with a “black girl” before. She’s a smart girl trying to figure out her complicated place in the world. There is a lot going on in this book. It has a layered effect that is only enhanced by the multiple points of view this story is told from. Each point of view reveals more and more layers of the story.
Durrow is precise when it comes to shifting character perspectives and voices. I was worried that I would eventually feel lost, but I didn’t. Not once. I wanted the novel to go on a bit longer, but it was mainly because I liked the characters so much, not because she didn’t do a good job of letting us figure out the rest of the story. I can’t say enough good things about this wonderful debut novel. I think she balanced plot (the action in the book), story (the emotional lives of the characters), and characterization perfectly.
I’ve always loved learning about people and their experiences⎯different ways of doing things, of being in the world and coping. This story made me want to sit down and talk with every single one of her characters and hear more of their stories. That’s a good sign from a book I randomly picked up at the library. A fantastic book.