“Hey,” Brick says finally. “What did you wish?” “I can’t tell you,” I say. But I think, If only Robbie had been a bird. If only we had been a family that could fly.
– The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a novel about a biracial girl named Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and an African American father living in America in the 1970s. At a young age, Rachel’s mother leaped off the roof of a building with her children, and Rachel was the only one to survive. She then goes to live with her grandmother and aunt, where she grows to adulthood, still trying to make sense of that trauma from her early life, as well as her own racial identity.
The plot of this novel is told through several characters’ perspectives: the main character Rachel, Rachel’s mother’s former employer Laronne, Rachel’s mother Nella, Rachel’s father Roger, and a neighbor from Rachel’s early childhood called Brick. In some novels this can feel chunky and disorienting, but despite the nonlinear narrative, the revealing of Rachel’s past and present felt like layers being peeled back. Rather than telling Rachel’s story, it seemed to reveal the pieces of Rachel’s identity. The story first shows an outsider’s view of the incident, as Laronne and Brick tell what they know about Nella, her relationships with her children and her boyfriend, and what they did or did not witness the day that Nella and her children fell from the roof of their apartment building. The narrative then primarily moves to Rachel’s childhood and young adulthood living with her grandmother and aunt, but her childhood is told to the reader in brief, disconnected scenes interrupted by flashbacks. Each scene in the present feels like a revelation of the adult that Rachel is becoming. Each scene in the past feels like a revelation of the past from which Rachel escaped. It not feel disjointed, though – the future and the past told together just felt like pieces of Rachel as a larger character.
Because the narrative was interrupted by frequent flashbacks, however, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky had a remarkably slow pace. This worked for a dramatic novel about a young girl’s self discovery, but this slow pace likely will turn away some readers. I often read drama and literary fiction and enjoy them, but sometimes I had trouble picking this novel back up because I didn’t have any sense of urgency to finish it. I was intrigued by the mystery of what happened the day that Rachel and her family fell from the rooftop, but there were times in the book when I doubted whether that mystery would be solved after all.
One of the primary themes of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was race, and how Rachel fit in or did not seem to fit in to any particular group. Rachel’s mother Nella is Danish, and Rachel when she was small was fluent in Dutch. Rachel’s father Roger, however, is a black man in the American military, and while that does not affect Rachel’s life as long as they are living in Europe, Rachel has a dramatically different experience when Nella moves to America with her children following her split from Roger. Nella of course had never lived in America before, so she is clueless about the ugliness of racism in America in the 1980s. In one particularly striking moment of the book, Nella’s new boyfriend calls the children a racist expletive, and Nella, ignorant of its meaning, thinks instead that it is a pet name. She is swiftly corrected by her boss, Laronne, but to my core I felt Nella’s horror at her own mistake. As a mother myself, I understand the overwhelming desire to protect one’s children, and I go to (perhaps extreme) lengths to make sure my daughter does not feel any inferiority for her appearance, her femininity, her interests… I can imagine how much more difficult that would be if she were a minority living in America. Of course the discussion of race is extended when the narrative switches to Rachel herself as she grows up living with her black grandmother and aunt. Rachel learns a good deal about black culture and the expectations of her as a black girl (the positive expectations placed upon her by her family as well as the negative expectations from the world around her), but memories of living with her Danish mother and awareness of her own fair skin and eyes makes her feel out of place no matter where she goes.
A good deal of the characterization in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was straightforward – the well-meaning acquaintance (Laronne), the curious neighbor boy (Brick), the protective grandmother – but Rachel and Nella were given much more complex identities, and I thought this worked well, given the limitations of a single book. Nella was perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, especially given the painful way that she ended her own life and the lives of her children. As the novel progresses, the reason for her split with Roger is revealed (though I will not reveal it in this review), but even before it is known, Nella is seen struggling with her decision to leave the father of her children, to move to a foreign country that is hostile to her biracial children, all while struggling with the poor decisions she has made in her life. Nella is the most realistic portrayal I have seen of mental illness in fiction. Nella struggles with her mental health, and in the end makes a horrific choice, but she is never vilified by the author. Instead, she is shown as a woman who desperately needed a support system, and when her support system failed, her family suffered the consequences.
In all, I would rate this novel a 7 out of 10. The purpose of the novel was of course accomplished beautifully: to address race and mental health with beautiful language and complex characters. However, the slow pace and the lack of dynamic plot will turn many readers away before they can reach the ending.