Rachel Morse is a young girl of dual heritage who has been sent to live with her grandmother after a terrible accident involving her family. Throughout most of the story we do not know what this accident was but we slowly find out. Billed as the story of a young girl’s coming of age in a place and time that is made complex due to race, sexuality, beauty, and class The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is interesting no doubt. It is one story of biracial experience. It is the 1980s and Rachel is suddenly plunged into a new home and new life with a slew of challenges meeting her at the door. She has previously lived with her Danish mother , siblings, and for a while her African-American father. Now living in Oregon with her African-American grandmother she faces the woes of adolescence combined with racism, mostly in the form of snide remarks, from both within and outside the race. The story centers on how Rachel handles herself and others and how she ultimately decides to define herself and how this affects her relationships.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky won the Bellwether Prize in 2008 and was released this year. According to the website The Bellwether Prize for Fiction specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility and change. The intent is to advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. I have not read any of the other prizewinners but they do look interesting. The Bellwether Prize was founded and is fully funded by Barbara Kingsolver. The brochure on the website talks more about fiction’s ability to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart and the capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility. Previous prizes have been awarded to:
•Donna Gershten, 2000, Kissing The Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins, 2001)
•Gayle Brandeis, 2002, The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins, 2003)
•Marjorie Kowalski Cole (1953-2009), 2004, Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins, 2005)
•Hillary Jordan, 2006, Mudbound (Algonquin, 2008)
•Heidi Durrow , 2008, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin, February 2010)
I felt mislead by the descriptions of this book being in the tradition of Annie John (Jamaica Kincaid) and The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison) both of which I have read. I just thought the book didn’t go where I wanted, it was too safe, it felt limited. And Morrison and Kincaid are neither safe nor limited, they really challenge us to think about issues in society. Though The Girl Who Fell From the Sky does introduce a difficult issue to many who may not be aware of the personal effects of race and its effects on relationships, I’m not sure the book evoked much empathy and social responsibility for me. There didn’t seem to be much call for change or any sort of acceptance or self reflection on the reader’s part and I’m not sure that Rachel ended up accepting herself. I think just as she’s getting there with regards to her identity and her sexuality the book ends abruptly. This of course is a real life occurrence, it is difficult for us to accept ourselves in the face of so much that is decided and unwavering in society. This may in fact be the point and could cause some readers to reflect on their own experiences or better appreciate the experiences of others. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky does succeed as a novel that will bring about emotions and provide insight into the experiences of a particular situation. I personally was shocked at Rachel’s reaction to her grandmother’s way of thought, her thoughts on her grandmother’s class status, and black culture in general. She didn’t try to see through the eyes from which her grandmother looked. I thought this served to stifle social consciousness or maybe if I turn it around, and hopefully this is the case with other readers, readers were able to see this flaw in Rachel and check some of their own prejudices and preconceived notions. It seems like we were supposed to feel sorry for Rachel, but I didn’t. I thought she was kind of bratty (fueled by her young age and also by trying to hang on to what she had known and seen through white eyes). Her mother’s attempt to shield her from society’s gaze by protecting her from her history ended up hurting her.
Though this is Rachel’s story I was more intrigued by a young boy who calls himself Brick and who saw what happened to Rachel’s family in Chicago. His home life is terrible, and his mother is often absent. To escape and keep his sould in tact, he bird-watches. Eventually he leaves home and spends much of his young life on the streets. Just after the accident Brick was able to meet Rachel’s father and is determined to deliver his message. It is obvious that he is bright, reflective, and strong-what seems to act as a counter and complement to Rachel.
I’d held off on writing about my thoughts on this because it was a book that ignited something within me. I thought that if I let it sit for a while and worked the thoughts over in my mind it would be easier to write about. It was an enjoyable read and Rachel an interesting character, I just wanted more.