The bird that was tragedy

March 24, 2010

I hesitated to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. A quick flip-through revealed it was written in varying viewpoints, and that technique doesn’t always succeed. Authors will fail to differentiate between the characters’  many voices. Even more annoying, the emotional rhythm can fragment as, chapter by chapter, we’re jerked between voices and viewpoints.  But author Heidi Durrow quickly erased my doubt. Her characters speak with powerful, individual purpose and also merge to tell a moving family tragedy.

That tragedy is witnessed by Jamie, the son of a drug-addicted mother living in a Chicago highrise. He thinks he sees a bird flying past their window, grabs his Peterson field guide and runs outside to identify the bird. What he finds in the courtyard is not a bird but a boy, girl, mother and baby who’ve tumbled from the building’s roof. Nobody knows whether they fell, jumped or were pushed.

The girl is 11-year-old Rachel, and she alone survives the fall because she lands on top of her brother. Her dead mother is Danish, and her father is an absent African-American military man based in Germany.  After the fall, Rachel moves to Portland, Oregon, to live with her paternal African-American grandmother and aunt. She is an exquisitely beautiful child with a light brown complexion and distinctive blue eyes.  She’s recognized for her beauty, yet regarded as neither black nor white. So it is not only the fall that profoundly alters and shapes her growing up in the 1980s but also issues of bi-racial identity. 

Rachel’s voice sensitively and wisely recounts her coming of age while four other  characters reveal her past. In addition to Jamie, we hear from Rachel’s mother before the fall; her father, who keeps a vigil in Rachel’s hospital room after the fall; and her mother’s employer, who rethinks the days before the fall. Along the way, Durrow doesn’t let us down, deftly building the story with seamless elegance. By the time we reach the end, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky does more than successfully tell a good story from multiple viewpoints; it evokes a memorable world where tragedy and issues of race and beauty create a whisper of wonder about what really happened on the rooftop that tragic day and about the burdens a life is given to carry.

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