Monday, May 31, 2010

Identity Crisis

When I was in Portland for the Public Library Association conference I was fortunate to receive a bag full of audio materials at the Sue Grafton dinner. The meals themselves can often be nondescript but getting back to the room and opening the bags is always a treat. Among the giveaways was an audio book by a fledgling author who had received several prestigious grants as well as a Bellweather Prize from none other than Barbara Kingsolver. If that doesn't make you sit up and take notice, Heidi Durrow's writing will.

You all know the myth that we are now supposedly living in a "post-racial" world. Oh, would that it were so! We may have a bi-racial president but we also have a Tea Party and a new law in Arizona that can only be followed if the authorities practice an ugly brand of racial profiling.
During the presidential campaign of 2008 the divisions in our country were exacerbated by black activists who accused Barack Obama of not being "black enough," while others refused to accept that  his mother, not to mention the grandparents who raised him, were white. If you read his books you will understand that this dichotomy has plagued him for most of his relatively  young life.

Durrow gives readers a chance to try to understand this bi-racial dilemma through the eyes of young teenage girl in this complex and thought-provoking debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. According to the blurbs this novel is an attempt to grapple with feelings that Durrow herself likely faced as she is, like the main character Rachel, the child of an African American soldier and a Danish woman who he met and married while overseas. The couple doesn't see color and naively believes that their children will be raised not to see it either.

Educated and well traveled, young Rachel comes to live in Chicago with her younger brother and sister. The marriage of her parents, though, will not survive the strain of alcohol abuse. Her mom takes up with a man she meets in rehab, a man who is not sufficiently healed to love or even accept the three black children that are part of the package.

Through multiple narrators and flashbacks the reader discovers that Rachel is the sole survivor of a horrific tragedy which results in her moving to Portland, Oregon to live with her father's mother. A light skinned black girl with startling blue eyes, living in an all black neighborhood with a black grandmother she's never met, Rachel begins the long process of examining what it means to be bi-racial in America.

Conflicted, questioning, unaccepted by either side (Rachel talks "white" but looks black), she longs for facts about her father while trying to come to grips with her mother's actions and yearns for love, often pinning her hopes on the wrong person. As the observer/reader I wanted to yell out no, don't trust that one, listen to this one, which I guess is indicative of how Ms. Durrow drew me into her narrative. And if that isn't the sign of a good writer, well, what is? Book groups could have a field day with this one!