The story appears on

Page B13

February 28, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Subtle colors of racial identity

THERE'S a reason many great social justice novels are written as historical fiction or contain elements of fantasy or allegory: This builds a certain crucial distance into their storytelling.

Heidi W. Durrow is the daughter of an African-American serviceman and a white Danish mother, and her first novel was, according to her publisher, "inspired by true events." On the face of it, the story of a biracial girl growing up in 1980s America, grappling with confusion over both her identity and a complicated, mysterious family history, couldn't be more timely or important.

But in the moments when Durrow's novel seems to tackle its big themes most self-consciously, it can be predictable, even dull. It's when it approaches the questions of identity and community more subtly and indirectly that "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" can fly.

After her mother and two siblings plunge to their deaths from a Chicago rooftop, young Rachel Morse is sent to Portland, Oregon, to live with her paternal grandmother. There she suddenly discovers the difficult subject of race: "I learn that black people don't have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes." Her father, an American serviceman posted overseas, is black. Her Danish mother, whom he met in Europe, was white. During Rachel's early childhood on an air base in Germany and then during a summer in Chicago, she apparently failed to realize that the color of her eyes and the color of her skin mattered to other people. But in Oregon she understands that the question of her race will define her.

Rachel is intelligent, beautiful, athletic. She is also motherless and, for all intents and purposes, fatherless. When she asks herself, "What are you?" she means what race, and she can't come up with any adequate reply. Her self-assessments as she tries to grapple with her feelings have a blunt quality.

"I am 14 and know that I am black, but I can't make the gospel sound right from my mouth." "I don't want being Danish to be something that I can put on and take off." She's poking at raw wounds, but what readers mostly see are the cauterized edges.

Durrow moves between Rachel's perspective and several others as she gradually reveals what happened to the girl's mother and brothers on that Chicago rooftop. But although there's a plot twist at the end, the novel isn't driven by suspense. Instead, its energy comes from its vividly realized characters, from how they perceive one another. Durrow has a terrific ear for dialogue, an ability to summon a wealth of hopes and fears in a single line. "How you gonna catch a lizard with your backside loading you down?" asks grandma as she watches Rachel's unmarried aunt eat a pancake. "How to learn all these things that might hurt them?" Rachel's mother writes in her broken English.

Even Rachel's confusion is registered best by her conversation with a young man who also has light skin. "What are you? Like black, or - like me?" Rachel asks. "Oh, I'm black. Regular," is his answer. He says "regular" as if the issue weren't as fraught and urgent as it is for her - "like he was describing coffee without milk," Rachel thinks.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend