The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow is a novel that explores the experience of a biracial teenager in the 1980s. Rachel’s father is African-American, and her mother was Danish. She is living with her grandmother in an African-American community in Portland, Oregon, where she stands out because of her blue eyes. Much of the story follows Rachel as she grapples with becoming a person who is both black and white, and yet, in the eyes of society, neither one.
There is also a tragic premise that surrounds this identity story. Rachel, her little brother, her baby sister, and her mother all fell (or were pushed?) from the roof of their apartment complex in Chicago. Rachel was the only survivor, and her father has vanished. The reader slowly learns what really happened to the family and why, and in the meantime, gets to play around with Durrow’s big metaphors about birds and flying and freedom.
I have said in several reviews that I get frustrated with books that are organized around a “message.” I often find that plot developments that serve the “message” are both too complicated and too convenient, and distract me from interesting characters. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, which won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is another one of those books. The shifting perspectives and diary entries and the volume of characters in this novel pulled me away from the really good coming-of-age story that was at the center. Ultimately, I don’t think that Rachel and her family needed to fall from the sky in order to be compelling.
I do think that this novel, though marketed to adults, is an even better book for teens.* Rachel’s experience in school, in her social life, and in her extended family offer a glimpse into what it feels like to navigate expectations about race and also to develop a sense of self that incorporates complexity. It would shine as a YA title in a way that it doesn’t as a mainstream literary novel.
You can read an interesting interview with Durrow here. She also writes a blog called Light-Skinned-ed Girl.
*Involves sexual situations and domestic abuse. I’d say it’s best for 13 and up, but choose with your own kid in mind.