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Review: Heidi W. Durrow's 'The Girl Who Fell From the Sky'

Here is what Rachel Morse has learned in her short, tumultuous life: "If there's no one else to tell another side — the only story that can be told is the story that becomes true." So the blue-eyed, "light-skinned-ed" girl tells a story that becomes her truth. "I'm black. I'm from northeast Portland. My grandfather's eyes are this color. I've lived here mostly my whole life. I'm black. I'm black, I know." She doesn't tell about her white Mor, "that's mom in Danish," or her little brother and sister. They are all dead. Only Rachel is left to tell — or not.

Her story, in Heidi Durrow's affecting, exquisite debut novel, is one of racial confusion, abandonment and survival despite impossible grief. Growing up in the 1980s without the people she loves most — her black GI father thinks she is better off without him — Rachel navigates a world in which she fits in nowhere but longs to please everyone.

As the novel opens, 11-year-old Rachel walks toward a bus stop with her grandmother's hand wrapped around hers "like a leash." Behind her is unspeakable tragedy, inspired by actual events. The first terrible realization of what has happened lands like a gut punch and becomes more clear and heartbreaking as the book progresses. Outwardly scarred only by a bad ear, Rachel fights sleep to keep the dreams away. "The doctors said it would take time, but she would probably make a full recovery — how lucky she was that her fall had been cushioned."

As Rachel grows, teachers and bus drivers praise her loveliness; boys sneak kisses. But she is never completely accepted. No little girl wants to be her best friend. When someone from her past stumbles into her life, she must confront the history she has tried so hard to escape.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is not just a story about color. Touching on race, yes, but also on family ties, alcoholism, poverty, childhood and violence, Durrow's powerful novel (winner of the Bellwether Prize, established by author Barbara Kingsolver) is poised to find a place among classic stories of the American experience.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

By Heidi W. Durrow

Algonquin, 265 pages. $22.95

Review: Heidi W. Durrow's 'The Girl Who Fell From the Sky' 04/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 3:41pm]
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