The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
David Newman

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
Novel by Heidi M. Durrow
Algonquin Books, 2010

Heidi M. Durrow’s debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, was recently released in paperback. The book centers on Rachel, a girl of mixed ethnicities (her father is African-American; her mother, Nella, is Danish and white) with a heartbreaking past: at the age of eleven, she, along with her mother and two siblings, fell from the top of their Chicago apartment building. It’s not entirely clear why this happened—there is strong evidence that Rachel’s mother may have perpetrated this as part of an attempted murder-suicide, but other theories are floated as well. Rachel is the only one who survives.

The novel chronicles Rachel’s coming of age in the years after the incident, when she moves to Portland, Oregon, to live with her grandmother on her father’s side. Accustomed to a life in Europe, where the question of her skin color was never much raised, she finds herself at odds with the predominantly black culture of her new school and home life. Rachel’s voice routinely exhibits beauty through restraint, such as when she describes a first kiss that “runs all the way to my middle,” or her difficulty in church, where she sings “like a white girl with not enough breath behind my notes.”

The storylines of other characters enter the fray—Jamie, a boy from Rachel’s building in Chicago; Loranne, Nella’s former boss; Roger, Rachel’s absent father; and Nella, in the form of a diary she kept in the years before her death. But make no mistake, this is Rachel’s story. Her character is far and away the most rounded and memorable. This is especially true in the novel’s second half, as Rachel’s sexuality—which she memorably describes as “the part of me that wants to be a part of something”—emerges in tandem with her social consciousness.  Durrow cleverly incorporates such motifs as birds and language to portray the many things Rachel feels caught between—childhood and adulthood; ethnic and cultural identities; lovers, real or imagined; the rooftop and the ground below.

The book has some issues. The tragedy at its center, in combination with a surfeit of untimely deaths and alcoholic characters, pushes the storyline toward melodrama. A character’s reentry into Rachel’s life after many years of absence feels too coincidental. There are moments when the writing bogs down (“The man adjusted his hat on the boy’s head. He saluted him.”). But these are small concerns in a novel as rich and assured as this one.

It’s easy to imagine middle-school and high-school teachers adopting this book for their classrooms, as those students will find in Durrow’s work a great deal that is familiar. But this novel ought not be restricted to that audience alone. Readers of all ages can engage with Rachel’s journey and the things she must overcome. I predict that The Girl Who Fell From the Sky will become a new “favorite book” for many. It’s that moving, and that good.