Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Some of the best fiction published these days comes from smaller presses. Although Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill is a subsidiary of Workman Publishing, it still seems like a small press to me. Their cutting edge fiction, with its thrills and surprises, is most definitely difficult to put down. Amazing arrays of interesting characters, together with masterful prose, have become hallmarks of Algonquin.

In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow has continued the Algonquin tradition of fine fiction with a mesmerizing story, dream-like at times, and made from equal parts of recollection and repression of horrific events. She has created a wonderful cast of intriguing and well-rounded characters. Each chapter is like a piece in the puzzle. Slowly, the reader makes the outline of the picture, and bit by bit, fills in all the blank spaces.

This novel won the Bellwether Prize. Barbara Kingsolver, who founded the Bellwether Prize for fiction in support of social change, writes on the website, “Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities.” Durrow richly deserves The Bellwether Prize.

Rachel’s mother, Mor, is a blue-eyed, blonde Danish woman, who met and married her father, Roger, a Black American soldier while he was stationed in Germany. Shortly after a divorce, Mor’s death occurs, and Rachel finds herself caught between two worlds. She leaves Chicago to live with her paternal Grandmother, Doris, who wrenches Rachel from the white world of Mor into a traditional African-American world.

Girl revolves around Rachel’s attempt to adjust to the changes in her life. She runs into conflicts everywhere – black girls tease her because of her blue eyes; white children tease her because of her hair. But she has friends, especially Brick, who witnessed the “accident” which took Mor’s life. He guards this secret until he can tell Rachel. His story – along with Rachel’s repressed memories – finish the tapestry of this tragic tale.

Brick travels across the country to find Rachel. He finally meets up with her in Portland, Oregon, and they become friends before she knows his real identity and what he knows. Durrow writes,

For weeks Brick wondered how to approach Rachel – how to tell the story he’d promised to tell. He often joined her for lunch with Jesse. They would each get a slice of pizza or a sandwich at the deli and then eat in Pioneer Courthouse Square watching people go by.

Rachel never talked about herself. When Brick asked her where she lived in Chicago, she said she couldn’t remember. The way she shut off – her eyes went blank; her voice went low – he knew Chicago wasn’t a memory she visited often. He would have to find the right moment to tell her the story he’d promised Roger he’d share. (211)

This first novel is so stunning, I can’t wait for Durrow’s next work. Who said books and the novel are dead? As long as Algonquin Press continues to discover new writers and turn out fiction of this quality, readers will have plenty to occupy themselves during those quiet moments when curling up with a book is the only remedy for what ails a body and a mind. Five stars

--Chiron, 9/7/10

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