By Lisa Page
Saturday, February 20, 2010; C05
THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
By Heidi W. Durrow
Algonquin. 264 p. $22.95
We're not finished with the old racial stereotypes we've bandied about for years. Some of us still talk about who isn't "black enough" and who's busy "acting white." Heidi W. Durrow's first novel, about a biracial girl coming of age, does the same. But it also transcends race and tells a very different story.
When several members of a family fall off the roof of a Chicago apartment building on a rainy summer day, the sole survivor is 11-year-old Rachel. Her mother, brother and baby sister all die, and the circumstances are mysterious. It looks like an attempted triple murder/suicide. But a boy who witnessed the fall claims there was a man on the roof as well.
Rachel goes to live with her father's mother and sister in Oregon. She longs for her dead mother, Nella, who was Danish, and for her father, Roger, an African American GI who wants no part of civilian life. Although Rachel had lived on military bases all over the world, now that she has landed in her grandmother's house in a black neighborhood, she must learn another language.
She discovers that her hair can "go back" to its unstraightened texture and that she is "tender-headed" when she has her hair combed. She eats day-old bread at the Wonder Bread factory but longs for "wienerbrod" and pastries made with marzipan. She learns she is "light-skinned-ed" and that being a blue-eyed black girl has its pros (boys like her) and cons (girls don't).
She begins to categorize life along racial lines: "Playing tennis is one of the things that goes in the white category, along with classical music and golf." And "Grandma always wanted Pop and Aunt Loretta to know white things. Like when Pop wanted to be a musician. Grandma made him play the piano, when what he wanted to play was the banjo or harmonica. A piano is more white than a harmonica."
But Rachel is not the only one negotiating race. The novel is told from various viewpoints and skips around chronologically. Nella's diary reveals her horror when her new boyfriend, a white man named Doug, calls her children "jigaboos." Rachel's grandmother refers to book reading as "High Falutin" and "white." Nella's employer thinks of Doug as black because he "didn't seem to have a real job." Roger "liked white girls, but not American white girls . . . because they acted like you were supposed to be happy just because you got to rub your brown on their cream."
These alternate voices also shed light on the rooftop tragedy at the center of the story. Durrow's characters have histories that include alcoholism, drug use and domestic abuse.
Death, disappointment and loss are constants. The characters all struggle to make sense of a world they can't seem to belong in, racially or economically. And the structure of the novel, with each chapter told from a different character's viewpoint, has a sort of "Rashomon" quality that builds tension around the rooftop mystery.
Durrow's novel is an auspicious debut, winner of the Bellwether Prize for socially conscious fiction. She has crafted a modern story about identity and survival, although some of the elements come together a little too neatly. Still, this is a fresh approach to an old idea. "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" is not just a tale of racial ambiguity but a human tragedy.
Is this the story of a woman who threw her children and herself off the roof of a building? Or is this the story of an alcoholic committing murder in a jealous rage? The answer is clear at the end. But, finally, the novel is about someone who manages to survive, despite horrific circumstances.
Page is a visiting professor of creative writing at George Washington University.