Elevate Difference

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Heidi W. Durrow’s novel swirls out from and obsessively around the moment when a mother and her three children fall from the rooftop of a Chicago building. The narration crystalizes around this striking event, with multiple narrators adding their points of view to the interpretation of the mystery surrounding the plunge. Rachel, the sole survivor, struggles to adjust to the losses and changed that characterize her life after the fall. Brick witnesses the family tumbling from the rooftop, mistaking the plummeting bodies for birds. Laronne is the former employer of Nella, Rachel’s mother, and is charged with sorting through the aftermath of the tragedy, trying to make sense of the event through only what fragments of the family is left behind: their belongings and their story, with its embellishments and rumors.

Like Laronne, the reader has to piece together the fractured picture of that day. Many pivotal characters stay on the periphery, darting in and out of the narrative through memories or secondhand accounts: Rachel’s father makes his voice heard through one chapter and through his encounters with Jamie; Nella speaks through her diaries, chronicling her journey towards sobriety; Rachel’s siblings are muted, as is the man that convinced Nella to leave her husband behind and move to Chicago to pursue a new life. The true story of what happened on that roof is elusive and evolving.

With such a startling and intriguing premise, Durrow still manages to shift the focus and drama of the story to Rachel’s life after the fall. The young girl not only tries to come to terms with her mother’s motives, her father’s distance, and her brothers’ deaths, but also tries to fit into a new culture that is at best dubious about her blue eyes and mixed race. Rachel seeks to establish herself as a “new girl,” with a new start after her the deaths of her brothers and mother, but finds she cannot escape from who she was and can only try to shape who she will become.

Durrow is a talented and eloquent storyteller. The metaphor of flight, both as flying and fleeing, is satisfyingly woven throughout the novel as the thread that unites characters and revelations. Durrow creates a affecting and personal portrait of a girl growing up in a world that expects her to define herself as either black or white, a stark decision she’s never considered and that makes her feel she is betraying the memory of her mother or the culture of her father and grandmother. Durrow’s novel deftly explores the idea that there is no singularity of truth, self-identity, or survival.

Written by: Jo Ristow, December 20th 2010

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