Tidewater Review - April 2010
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 272 pp. $22.95.
It’s cold and windy on the Chicago apartment house roof. Nella and her three children are standing at the edge, looking down at the trash-ridden couryard below. It’s the third afternoon this week they’ve repeated the scary scene. Urging them closer to the abyss, Nella pushes little Robbie over the side, puts a hand on young Rachel’s back and is shoved aside, then steps over the edge herself with baby Ariel in her arms. Rachel jumps after her, hoping to catch Robbie’s hand and cushion his fall.
Rachel, horribly broken, lands on Robbie’s body. Her mother, Robbie and Ariel are all dead, but Rachel survives after a long hospital stay. She is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland, Oregon.
Adolescence is a tough time for many kids – and even more difficult for mixed-race teens. It’s doubly harrowing for Rachel, the leading character in Heidi Durrow’s debut novel. Rachel is the biracial daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I. named Roger. She is a beautiful combination of both parents. Her hair is dark and curly and her complexion is light brown. Her eyes are startling blue.
Born and raised mostly in Germany, where Roger was stationed, the family was untouched by racial prejudice. Roger made it clear he was unwilling to bring them back to the United States. He was tall, educated and intelligent. A kind man, he adored his wife and children. His surviving children, that is. Both he and Nella, his Danish wife, had problems with alcohol, a flaw that stained their early marriage. The drunken Roger fell asleep while he was alone with their first-born son, Charles, who died in the house fire from Roger’s cigarette.
A decade later, Nella stopped drinking and came to Chicago with the children and an American contractor, her new lover. America was strange, a shocking place where her children heard the n-word taunt and her lover refer to them as “jigaboos.” She became obsessed with protecting them from hate. She threw out the lover and in her grief decided that the only way to protect her beloved children was to die and take them with her.
Rachel was the only survivor, except for Roger, who came to Chicago to sit by her bedside during the days that she was unconscious. Before she awoke, he drank and caused a scene that expelled him from the hospital. He vanished.
Rachel was discharged to her grandmother, Roger’s mother, and was taken to Portland for her recovery. For the next six years, her grandmother worked to change her from a color-blind child into a perfect black girl. Only her divorced Aunt Loretta, who also lived with grandmother, was the bright side in the lonely adolescent’s life. Loretta was beautiful, intelligent and fun-loving, easing Rachel into her new life. Loretta loved books, played tennis and was engaged to Drew, a counselor and manager of a Salvation Army’s house for recovering addicts and alcoholics.
Durrow tells Rachel’s story with chapters devoted to each of the characters in Rachel’s new life. There’s the little boy Jamie who lived in the tall apartment house where the family fell from the roof. Jamie witnessed Robbie’s plunge past his window overlooking the fatal courtyard while his drug-numbed mother entertained her “new friends” in the bedroom. Questioned by police, he said there was also a man on the roof before the victims fell. Wanting to flee the memory of the accident, he gave his name as “Brick” and ran away from home.
Laronne was Nella’s employer at a beauty shop and testified that Nella was a good worker, a fine person and a loving mother, although distressed by her concerns for her children’s future amid so much disdain for their color.
Rachel is rejected by her classmates, both black and white. She’s too different with her mother’s bright blue eyes, too beautiful like her Aunt Loretta, too smart with her endless reading and all A’s on report cards, and too ignorant of the speech patterns of the black students who revile her for being “too white.”
When Aunt Loretta dies from a bad reaction to antibiotics, Drew continues to visit Rachel and Grandmother and becomes a surrogate father for Rachel. He offers her a summer job as a helper at the rehabilitation center, where she meets new young friends. One summer job intern is a rich white boy whose mother is Norwegian. As a guest in their house, Rachel is welcomed with complete acceptance, just as it had been in Europe when she was a child. Jesse treats her as a friend, then betrays her.
A new “guest” at the rehab center is Brick, now a tall, recovering drinker who has been a drifter over most of the western states since his bolting as a child runaway. He’s being tutored by Drew to get his GED before entering college.
It’s Brick who reveals his connection to the tragedy and bonds with Rachel, cushioning the sorrow that befell her.
The author, Heidi Durrow, is a graduate of Stanford, Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Yale Law School. This, her first novel, won the Bellweather Prize for Fiction in 2008. Critics have called the story “haunting and lovely, pitch perfect, this book could not be more timely” (Barbara Kingsolver). This reader could not agree more.
Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 349 pp. $19.95.
One need not be a “tree hugger” to be fascinated by Diana Wells’ latest treatise on growing things. The author of 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names and 100 Birds and How they Got Their Names brings the same delightful observations to the familiar trees in the forests, on our streetscapes and in our yards.
She introduces the reader to a list of caveats – she doesn’t claim to be a scientist. The book, she says, is not for botanists or dendrologists or taxonomists, or even for those who want to identify individual trees. “It’s a book for non-experts like me.” And like me, to be sure.
Best of all, it’s a book that’s great reading, either in huge gulps or leisurely nibbles.
For example, I had no idea that “When the pale bark of the alder is cut the sap turns blood red.” Doesn’t that make the reader long to have an alder and a penknife? Because it doesn’t rot in water, much of Venice still stands on pilings of alder wood. Who knew?
And that’s only from the second entry in the book’s alphabetical order. The first tree is the acacia, named for the Greek word for “sharp point.” Its wood is so hard and dense it was used for nails to hold ships together.
Choosing a tree to read about is a visual joy, since the Table of Contents at the front of the book is illustrated by Heather Lovett with beautiful pen and ink drawings of selected trees to show their leaves or needles, their fruit and growth patterns. Her drawings also grace the introduction to each species.
This reviewer was eager to read the biography of one of my own trees, the Washington hawthorn that erupts in a cloud of white flowers in spring, shades my second-story balcony in summer, provides an exercise spa for squirrels all winter and perches for birds at the feeders it shelters. Ms. Wells’ knack for digging up unusual facts revealed my tree’s biography like a secret life.
Under the old calendar it got the name “May tree” because it came into bloom on May 1. In 1572 the calendar was changed, and the month of May arrived two weeks earlier. “May Day was still a very important country festival,” Wells writes, “and for a village maiden to be chosen as Queen of the May was tantamount to stardom.” British farmers and gardeners used hawthorns for hedges – the thorns kept farm animals inside fields and outside of gardens.
The reviewer has no doubt about the ability of its thorns to inflict injury. Trimming lower branches to make it possible to mow the lawn left my arms as punctured as the holes of a colander and evoked considerable blood-letting.
It’s no wonder that Hawthorns were one of the trees connected to Christ’s crown of thorns. This legend confirms its status in religious thought:
“The sacred Glastonbury thorn was a hawthorn bush said to have sprouted when Joseph of Arimathaea (who had buried Jesus in his own intended tomb) came to Britain bearing a cup of Christ’s blood. Wearily he stuck his staff into the ground while he rested, and it burst into flower even though it was midwinter. So he built Glastonbury Abbey on the site.”
And to think that its cousin sits in my back yard!
The book ends with a dire warning. Yews have been hybridized hundreds of times, but all parts of the tree are poisonous except the fleshy cup surrounding the seed. How to explain that deer eat its leaves and berries with impunity? And how can the bark of a yew native to the Northwest yield a substance, “taxol,” that was discovered to be a powerful anti-cancer drug?
The warning? An old tradition that whoever fell asleep in the shade of a yew tree would die. Not someday, but immediately, one assumes.
Learning more about the trees in this book and their place in history and lore will only add to their beauty. Read it and smile.