I snagged this image of the cover from the author's website. And if she reads the review, I'm hoping she'll be okay with that. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)

Serendipity is a funny thing.  It can mean that you end up working on a Tuesday night when you are normally off to cover for someone out of town.  That will mean you drive in to Brookline instead of taking the bus.  So you might be listening to “All Things Considered.”  And so you happen to listen and hear a writer talk about her first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.  And she might talk about Nella Larsen, whose great novel, Passing, you read in Graduate School.  In Portland, Oregon, where the bulk of this new novel takes place.  So when you get to work, you look it up to make sure you have copies.  Then someone comes in ten minutes later and asks about it, because it turns out she was also listening to NPR and you know right where it is.  And so you pick up and read a book you might normally never have grabbed and you find yourself transported to a city where you spent the largest portion of your life.  And then you make it to the end and realize that it is one hell of a book, the first brand new novel by any novelist, first-time or otherwise, that has rocked you in a long time.

I read all the time.  At home, on the bus, at work.  I read fast and I read a lot, so not a whole lot impresses me these days.  After all, when you’ve pretty much read your way through all the award winners and are in the middle of a Top 100 Novels of All-Time list on your blog, not a whole lot is left to really knock you out.  So what a delight it was to pick up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.  Yes, there are echoes of Nella Larsen in these pages and I would have already made the connection to the name of the narrator’s mother even had I not heard Heidi Durrow talking about it on NPR last night.  But there is so much more than that.  What I really felt was that this was the novel that so many of the people I used to work with at Powell’s want to be able to write about Portland.  It’s true, this begins in 1982, long before most of those people lived in Portland and it really begins in Chicago, but so much of the heart of this novel is Portland and in the details.  I had to stop to read parts to my wife that mention Fred Meyer and Catlin Gabel and Harbor Lights.  These are Portland details, the kind of details you would find in someone who knows the city, who loves the city.

This is a short novel and it’s a coming of age novel of a girl who has survived through a horrible tragedy and suddenly finds herself in a different part of the country with family she doesn’t know and living a life she doesn’t recognize.  It gives her a voice reminiscent of Celie in The Color Purple in that we feel her living through her changes.  Several years pass in the course of the novel, but it feels like no time at all because we grow with her.  We see her shedding the trappings of adolescence that really disintegrated in the heart of her tragedy and becoming the woman she was already being forced to be.  It is true that the girl is of mixed race, with a black father and a Danish mother, but I felt less of that isolation than I felt of the isolation that simply comes of being in a stranger in a new society and trying to fit in during those horrible teenage years.

But Rachel, the narrator of much of the book, is really only part of the story.  She is the only one described on the book jacket and if it were only her story, it would still be a good novel, but it would not take this extra amazing step.  For we also have James, the boy who will grow into Brick, the young man.  James is a witness to this tragedy and to family history and ghosts that Rachel doesn’t learn about and those ghosts take him on his own journey.  It is his parallel journey, his quest to find Rachel and what has become of her that gives the story an extra emotional punch because it is something that is rarely thought about.  There are those who live history.  Then there are those who witness it.  And how shall they connect?  The answer to that is what comes out of the final part of the book, a part I began to read with a little bit of dread.

And as I got to the end, I was reminded a bit of the film Monster’s Ball.  If you have not seen it, I shall simply say that at the conclusion, one character finds out about a connection they have always had to another character.  That other character is unaware of this connection, but we, the audience, have known it the entire film.  And how this character chooses to react when they find this out is what provides the film with a truly satisfying, genuinely true emotional moment.  I felt this way at the end of the book as finally learn things and as Rachel learns things.  We begin to understand the tragedy that has encompassed both of these characters lives.  And looking at that final page again, I am also reminded of another brilliant film, In America, with perhaps the saddest line I have ever heard on film: “Say goodbye to Frankie, dad.”  That line sums up the entire moment in one emotional wallop, as do the final lines of this very fine novel.

If you have never seen Monster’s Ball or In America, you owe it to yourself to see them because they are great films and their endings are as fine as any films I have ever seen.  And then you should read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.  Then come by the Booksmith and tell me what you thought.  Because great books like this are always worth spending the time to talk about them.

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