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Who Do You Say That I Am?

  • Jan 20, 2010
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Rating:
+3
Heidi Durrow has written a worthy debut novel in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, a 2008 Bellwether Prize winner for Fiction. Told in different narrators' voices, the main character of Rachel Morse is the only voice told in first person. It is 1982 and Rachel has come to Portland, Oregon to live with her paternal grandmother after a life-altering tragedy in her former residence of Chicago. The blue-eyed, curly haired, "light-skinned-ed" 11 year-old girl, daughter of a Danish woman and a black-American serviceman, is thrust into the care of a church-going, libation sipping, elderly black woman who loves her granddaughter but has nothing but revulsion for Rachel's mother, Nella. But to Rachel, her beloved "Mor" was a loving mother who tried to do the best for her and her younger siblings. The light in Rachel's life is her Aunt Loretta, who lives with them. While Grandma is rigid and judgmental, Loretta is encouraging and supportive, helping her niece navigate adolescence and the feeling of isolation among her classmates who challenge her sense of self.

Rachel slowly realizes in order to stay on the good side of her predominately black schoolmates is to claim a black identity. She is a good student and clings to that achievement but also experiences growing pains while attempting to come to grips with the reality about her elusive father and trying to erase memories of that fateful day on a rooftop in Chicago.

The voices of the other narrators weave in and out of the past and present molding a tale of story, character and suspense. There is Roger, Rachel's father, whose tenuous grasp on reality costs him dearly; Nella, who is in awe and angst at the racial dynamics of America and how her children fit in the scheme of things; Laronne, Nella's supervisor, whose perception of white women and their ways, clouds her judgment and brings about guilt; and Jamie, the young boy who witnessed a disaster so disturbing he grew up overnight, so much so that he renamed himself.

While there were tragedies in Rachel's young life, this is by no means a tragic mulatto story which it easily could have been; but in the deft hands of the author it is a story of humanity, courage and spirit. Durrow, who counts Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen as an influence, is a welcome voice in the canon of biracial and interracial literature.

The Advanced Reading Copy for this review was provided courtesy of the publisher.

Dera R. Williams
APOOO BookClub

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About the reviewer
Dera R Jones Williams ()
Ranked #984
Dera is a writer, editor, genealogist, writing mentor, researcher, and family historian, and she is active in local literary and national literary circles. She is the keeper of family stories, archivist … more
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: Early on inThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Rachel Morse (the girl in question) wonders about being "tender-headed." It's how her grandmother chides her for wincing at having her hair brushed, but it's also a way of understanding how Rachel grapples with the world in which she landed. Her parents, a Danish woman and an African-American G.I., tried to hold her and her siblings aloft from questions of race, and their failure there is both tragic and tenderly wrought. After sustaining an unimaginable trauma, Rachel resumes her life as a black girl, an identity she quickly learns to adopt but at heart is always reconciling with the life she knew before. Heidi W. Durrow bolsters her story with a chorus of voices that often see what Rachel can't--this is particularly true in the case of Brick, the only witness to her fall. There's a poetry to these characters that draws you into their lives, making for a beautiful and earnest coming-of-age novel that speaks as eloquently to teens as it does to adults. --Anne Bartholomew
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ISBN-10: 1565126807
ISBN-13: 978-1565126800
Author: Heidi W. Durrow
Publisher: Algonquin Books

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