'The Girl Who Fell from the Sky' a remarkable, telling novel

Lowcountry book reviewerJanuary 9, 2012 

  • "The Girl Who Fell from the Sky," by Heidi Durrow. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 278 pages. $13.95 (paperback)

America always has been referred to as a melting pot, with Irish marrying Italians and Poles marrying Greeks, but in recent years the mixture has changed. Increasingly, and this is borne out by studies of both the North and South, white people and black people are getting married. Less than 50 years ago, intermarriage was illegal in much of the country, but a New York Times front page story a few months back reported that the U.S. Census Bureau was seeing a national trend toward mixed marriages. And the state with the greatest increase was Mississippi.

Experts expect a nationwide increase of between 35 percent and 50 percent in the next few years. The day might come when our race problem disappears because we are all one race.

This is what makes this remarkable novel so timely. It is not new -- the paperback edition came out a year ago -- but it ought to be read by everyone who cares about where our society is going. The author, the child of a Danish mother and a black father, has imagined the life of a young girl whose mother committed an almost unspeakable act. Driven by the condemnation of the community and deserted by her husband, she threw herself and two of her children off the roof of her apartment house. Seeing her family falling to their deaths, her oldest daughter, Rachel, leaped after them.

Rachel was the only survivor. While this did not happen to the author, she had read a newspaper story about a similar incident and "was haunted not by the question of why this happened and how we could live in a world where it would happen, but what would her survival look like. I wanted to give her a future ... wanted to give her a voice to see how she might grow up."

At first, Rachel cannot remember the tragedy. After her recovery in a Chicago hospital, she is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland, Ore., where the author also grew up. The child is not yet a teenager, and when she begins school, with her blue eyes and brown skin, she finds herself an object of derision and threats of violence. But she is smart and she is pretty, and if the girls are hostile, the boys are interested.

Now, other voices come into the story. One is Jamie, who had seen the family fall. He is fascinated by birds, and thought he had seen a great egret and rushed downstairs to find that his bird was "a boy and a girl and a mother and a child." He will never forget that moment, even years later when he meets Rachel again and cannot bring himself to tell her what he saw.

We hear from the woman who had given Rachel's mother a job, and cannot understand what she did. We hear from Roger, who fell in love with Rachel's mother, and while he is no longer in Rachel's life, he cares for her deeply. We hear from the mother, and see how the community's derision was weakening her will to go on.

Jamie wants a stronger name so he begins calling himself Brick. Armed with a new sense of confidence, he takes some money from his mother's purse and runs away. He does not know where it is, but his destination is Oregon, where he knows Rachel is living.

Years go by; Rachel's grandmother is slowly becoming addicted to her "contributions" -- the cheap liquor that blots out reality. Rachel experiments with sex, but while she is warned against following her mother's path, she seems unable to resist the men who show an interest in her. We meet Brick again and learn what the years spent on his own have done to him. He is playing piano in a bar when Rachel comes in and they meet and are drawn together. He finally tells what he saw that day, and the memories come flooding back.

At the end, she says of Brick: "When he looks at me, it feels like no one has really seen me since the accident. I'm not the new girl. I'm not the color of my skin. I'm a story. One with a past and future unwritten." And while we do not know what her future will be, we know she will have one.

The writing in this book is deceptively simple, but her haunting story is going to be a hard one to forget. "Rachel's tale has the potential of becoming seared in your memory," said The Washington Post. After comparing it to "Catcher in the Rye" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," one critic said it "soars to the height of a novel not to be missed."

I hope you won't miss it.

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