The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

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