Monday, February 15, 2010
I can't wait to help spread the word about this wonderful book by Heidi W. Durrow. It's the debut work of a young author who has already won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize works of fiction that promote social justice.
It's the coming of age story of a young biracial girl who is the sole survivor of a mysterious family tragedy. Rachel moves from Chicago to her grandmother's house in a mostly black neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. Her father is an African-American GI who met her Danish mother while on leave in Europe. Rachel is trying to figure out who she is, where she fits in, and how to make sense of her history. It's the story of every girl, but yet so much more complicated. It's tender and gentle, but difficult, poignant and thought-provoking.
Life isn't easy for Rachel, a light brown-skinned, half-African-American-half-Danish girl with bright blue eyes and "nappy hair." Her new friends accuse her of "talking white." This novel explores what it's like to live a life that requires so many hyphens. It makes you wonder: why do we still categorize people when we live in a modern melting pot world? Aren't we all a mix of something? And it's often not just black or white.
But still, young Rachel's task is more difficult than most. When she explains she is half Danish, people respond: "oh, really?" with that tone of voice that makes it a challenge. One of my favorite scenes is when Rachel is invited to a Scandinavian family dinner with a friend. Food is family, memory and heritage, and Rachel needs a good taste of kartoffel , bonner and aguker salat after a long, lonely fast from her Danish mother's cooking. Rachel thinks: "I don't want the Danish in me to be something that time makes me leave behind." It makes you want to raise your glass and give a hearty "Skal!" to this wonderful girl.
The book has haunting parallels with Nella Larsen's Passing, the 1929 story of a biracial woman who died in a mysterious fall out of a window. I'm already planning to order a copy of that book for follow-up reading.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky would make a great discussion for a book club, or a great cross-over for teens. I had the chance to meet Heidi Durrow at the ABA's Winter Institute, and she's as nice as she is smart. I'm happy to put her book on the Staff Pick shelf at The Bookstore.