Thoughts: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

girlwhofell

In a tragic incident, a woman and her three young children fall from the roof of a high building in Chicago. 11 year old Rachel is the only one to survive.

Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel examines Blackness, biraciality and belonging in the context of the US during the 1980s. After the fall Rachel, the child of a Black American GI and a white Danish mother, is sent to live with her Black grandmother in Portland Oregon. It is only then that light-skinned Rachel with the “bluest eye(s)”is confronted with how exactly she is to fit into the Black community. Until this point, we are told, Rachel has not had to confront this issues or colorism or anti-Black racism. Having grown up on US bases in Germany and spent vacations in Denmark has apparently allowed her to live in the in-between without having to choose either parts of her identity. I’m emphasizing this because while, yes, I do understand that this book focuses on biraciality in the Black community and obviously reflects the author’s own experience, I was confused about Rachel’s life before. I want this post to be spoiler-free, so let’s just say that the impact of racism plays a key role in the mysterious incident that lost Rachel much of her family, and then thinking about army bases as microcosmos and how racism in Germany operates – well it felt like there was a huge gap that asked me to ignore all these issues to buy into the premise that racism and having to explain her identity only really began in the US. Likely this is a stylistic choice and is not meant to leave me with this impression, but it took me a while to get into the story that I was actually presented with.

It’s important to remember that this story is set in the 80s, before Obama and more media outlets presented people with stories and images of biracial people. Rachel’s attempt of making sense of how she is positioned in relation to Blackness, from being an outsider to benefitting from colorism, is the main storyline of the novel. She is forever removed from her mother and the Danish language so crucial to her identity. Instead, she is told that she is an “Oreo,” speaking and acting as if she were white. Her grandmother meanwhile tries to mold her in the image of a good Black girl who is supposed to aim no higher than a secretarial job and lonely and hurt at never quite fitting in anywhere, Rachel goes looking for validation in all the wrong places.

These attempts of Rachel at forging a self are by far the strongest aspect of the novel and I would have gladly learned more. Another is of course the mysterious tragedy and multiple narrators are drawn on to act as witness and to provide the context to the way racism and mixed-racedness impact families. While the information and perspective provided by these different voices – a young boy named Brick, Rachel’s mother Nella, her father and Laronne who was Nella’s employer – help understand the reason for the tragedy, they also serve to fragment the book. And perhaps this is also a reason I felt distanced from Rachel for much of the novel, I would have liked spending more time with her and perhaps following her journey into adulthood. There is much material for a sequel.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a welcome contribution to literature about mixed-racedness, identity and belonging. Fittingly, it has won the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change. This is a debut novel that perhaps not always does justice to its fantastic premise, but it has an important story to tell and I will be reading the author’s next novel.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

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32 thoughts on “Thoughts: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

    1. Thank for stopping by! πŸ™‚ No magical realism, but it is still pretty good. It’d be great to hear what you think about it, when you get a chance to read it!

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  1. Wonderful review, Bina. I don’t think I have read a novel in which the biracial theme is explored, though when I think about it, I have read a Japanese and a Chinese novel in which the main characters were biracial. This novel looks fascinating because of its theme. It is sad that Rachel has to suffer because she is discriminated by both sides. I hope she has a happy ending. Thanks for writing about this book.

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    1. Thanks, Vishy! i think Passing might be one of the most famous examples, have you read it? Also, White Mexican Boy. The books you read sound intriguing, I’d love to see the topic covered from a non-Western perspective πŸ™‚ Tiny spoiler, it’s not a tragedy, so definitely give it a try!

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  2. I didn’t expect the girl to actually fall from the sky. πŸ™‚
    I’ve read a few books with biracial characters in them, but the books were not just about being biracial, so this books appeals to me for that reason. Also, my sister has had this experience her whole life, and I want to know more about what it’s like for her. She highly recommends ‘Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada’ by Lawrence Hill, which I am hoping to soon read myself (I should have read it long ago – bad sister! – but I recently made a point of buying a copy so that I could finally get to it).

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    1. Haha yes, that is an unexpectedly literal title! πŸ™‚
      That’s a wonderful reason to seek out such books! πŸ™‚ Thanks and thanks to your sister for the rec! Will have to check out the book, it sounds fantastic and I want to know more about the Canadian context.
      I think because in Germany race as a concept is taboo as a result of the Holocaust, being biracial here is really different to the US. Mostly, if you cannot pass you’re “from somewhere else” and are Other in general (and so I’m suprised this wasn’t covered in the book, about Rachel’s past in Germany and Denmark) or you can pass and then it’s an “exotic” thing you get complimented for 😦

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  3. I really wish my memory wasn’t so awful! I read this book, but it was a few years back. And aside from a couple of glimpses of events, all I really remember is that I really liked it. I think I’d like to read it again after reading your thoughts.

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    1. Heh I can relate, I forget so much soon after finishing a book! Wish I had a perfect memory, and not the mess I’m stuck with. Super embarassing when I cannot even remember protagonist names or settings. Glad you liked the book! Maybe we can comparenotes when you reread it, though by then I might’ve forgotten most of it. But that’s why I review books πŸ™‚

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  4. This sounds like a really interesting book! I haven’t heard of it, but I’m really looking forward to reading to it now.

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  5. Love how your mind works, and how critically you approach everything (YES YES to everything in that first paragraph). This (being biracial) is something I need to learn more/think more about, and obviously read much more about – added to the tbr, Thank You! πŸ™‚

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    1. Ioana you are too kind! Especially considering the smart reviews you always post! πŸ™‚ Heh usually I wrote gushing posts, but sometimes my inner critic has to be let out. Definitely read it and let me know if you agree or if I’m imagining things πŸ™‚ I want to read more books with biracial protagonists too, especially from various countries, since race as a concept works differently outside the US (maybe that’s what the author meant, but still, different doesn’t mean we don’t have horrible racism and issues of just where to belong over here).

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      1. I don’t have to read the book to know you’re not imagining things – I’m 100% certain racism exists everywhere (though I will read the book!) True, it does have special flavors and history in the US… actually you saying this makes me realize my view on racism is extremely US-centric–I’ve read a lot on the history and critical theory of it, but only from an American perspective. (Light-bulb going off….) So curious now about how racism manifests in other places, especially Europe, which up until relatively recently was very very white, and also pretty homogeneous (like the French lived in France, etc). I guess when I say recently I mean some number of decades – relatively speaking, in history, compared to our hundred-years old slavery legacy. Anyways I do look forward to reading more about this from you and from your reading selection.

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      2. Yeah I think there’s different incarnations of racism definitely, or other nations just express things differently. Like putting down one’s ‘race’ in offical statistics etc, we don’t have that here. But argh I wish I could remember the title of the book I want to recommend you, still googling πŸ˜€ Europe is always represented as homogenous but then we know now that that’s not really true (about immigration etc starting in the 60s) but we’ve had people of color here since the early 19th century. But then people argue that those were few in numbers etc. So there’s always something. Hah from my studies and reading my view is very US-centric too πŸ˜€

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yay for adding to the tbr, I think the blogosphere is just one big conpiracy to never let the tbr dry up πŸ™‚ Have you read more books with biracial protagonists? I know so few.

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  6. This sounds interesting, nothing close to what I have read before. Will look it up now. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. A very thought-provoking review. I’m a bit of a Toni Morrison fan, so I kind of zoomed in on the similarities – the image of falling from the roof/Song of Solomon and “the bluest eye” πŸ˜€ Heh, anyway. It’s great to see that this book is garnering quite a bit of attention. I would have to agree with your comments, about how Rachel’s biraciality hasn’t affected her during her life in Germany, especially when you consider the time period. I wonder if the author has commented on that choice in an interview? I’m super intrigued though, will be picking it up when I can. Great review!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! Heh yes definitely wonderful nods to Morrison and Passing, too.
      I haven’t yet found this aspect mentioned in Interviews but I really would love to hear the author’s thoughts on it. But maybe you’ll let me know if I’ve missed something, would love to hear your thoughts once you’ve read the book!

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  8. As a parent of biracial (but half-Asian) children, I want to comment on your surprise that an 11 year old child might not be aware of racism against herself.

    When I started to read Americans online fearing for their biracial children, I asked my own (as I thought they had felt themselves not different from peers) – and they did tell me, that whatever the people around thought, my children had not encountered racism regarding to themselves.

    So – it is possible for a child not to see the race as problem (even in society, where racism and xenophobia are widespread generally) Heh, my own father has turned severely anti-immigration in old age, but it never even enters his head, that his own grandchildren are biracial (my ex lives outside Estonia now, so not a problem for those who suddenly want Estonia for Estonians)

    Half-Asian is bit less noticeable than half-African, still my colleague, who has half-African grandchildren has also told that while adults may have problems, it can sometimes be surprising for adults how the children in kindregarten see no difference in race.

    I do worry, though, that the current anti-immigration frenzy might change situation worse here, too

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