I was given Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky at a national conference a year or two ago, either the MLA, AWP, or NTCE, each of which offer a book fair of sorts where publishers eagerly place publications in the hands of their constituents in an effort to push either classroom use and or publication subscriptions. While some people line up and race through the room in an effort to collect as many titles as possible, I tend to be more picky, and while I had never heard of the text at the time, a discussion with the publisher’s reps piqued my interest. Thus after allowing the text to sit fallow for a bit, I finally picked the book up and gave it a read.
In the end, I was pleased with my choice. Durrow’s text casts a nuanced journey through American race relations in the latter half of the twentieth century. The narrative is written from multiple perspectives—it crisscrosses back and forth from a first person narrative that follows an adolescent mulatto orphan, Rachel, and her new life with her grandmother while incorporating numerous third person accounts of multiple characters ranging from a young boy who falls for young Rachel and wishes nothing more than to meet her in the flesh and her late mother’s boss. Each of these narratives focuses on multiple fights: Rachel’s fight to adapt and survive in her new surroundings after miraculously surviving a fall from the top of a Chicago building that left her siblings and white mother dead, a father’s fight with addiction, a proud grandmother raising a grandchild she doesn’t quite understand, and society’s effort to both grow and adapt to a new generation of race relations in an ever changing landscape.
Beyond the theme of race, Rachel, who was born overseas, is forced to confront her cultural identity at every step, for she finds no acceptance. She is rejected by both white and black social groups, lacking a full comprehension of culture and belonging. She has no place and reels because of it. She recognizes her familial ties to addiction, but despite her struggles to avoid, she is forced to confront it—addiction, pain, and sexual pressure surround her. These facts, coupled with her amazing beauty and often noted blue eyes, mark her, force her to stand out in a Hester Prynne style as individual marked by sex, desire, and thus scandal. Her peers are jealous, the boys salivate, and her grandmother sneers in a protective combination of the two.
Against this landscape, in a narrative that spans 1970’s, we watch Rachel grow while trying to come to grips with the disaster that brought her to her grandmother’s door. Rachel is the girl who fell from the sky, but why did she fall and what does said fall signify? In the end, Durrow’s talent shows through, for the answers matter less and less as we search to understand the humanity of both Rachel’s survival and her predicament.