Jul 9, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

Reading this book is like remembering the past through a dream-like fog. It's hazy, yet crystal clear at the same time. You know that something bad has happened to Danish mother Nella and her children, but you don't know exactly what. You know that Nella's daughter Rachel, is a survivor; but you don't know how or why. You know that Nella's husband is black, that her children are biracial, but you don't know exactly how that fact impacts her family. The story slowly trickles out in a series of flashbacks, rotating perspectives between Rachel, Nella, a young boy who named himself "Brick", and Nella's boss, a black woman named Laronne.  Rachel remembers her mother, remembers her Danish heritage, but is living with her black grandmother. She is made fun of at school for being blue-eyed and too light-skinned (not black enough.) She is also called by some derogatory terms that white society uses for people of color. We watch Rachel grow from child to teenager, struggling to make sense of her history and her identity.

Image via GoodReads
Heidi Durrow really captures the voices of her characters. Rachel's voice as a child is marked by shorter sentences and has a child-like quality that evolves as she gets older. Nella's voice is recognizably one of a non-native English speaker. Grandma's voice is undeniably African-American. By the end of the book, Rachel's voice is a definite mixture of it all--the Danish and the African-American--and as a reader, you want another chapter, another book, so you can watch her as she strengthens that mixed voice.

Books like this aren't easy to read. I was fascinated both by the story of Rachel, who searches for a place to fit in, but also by the story of her mother.  Nella learns some hard lessons about being the white mother of biracial children in America, and her voice really spoke to me. Her character voices concerns that are not easy to talk about due to our society's difficulty with the subject of race. At one point in the book, Nella finds out that her daughter knows what it means to be black:
 "She knows the word. She is black. I know she is not a word. If she is a word then she doesn't have me."
Here's the thing: I can relate to Nella's feelings. I don't know how to talk about those feelings very well, but here it goes:

As an educated white mother of biracial children, I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to help my children love their brown-ness. We talk about African-American culture and history. They've always had books with brown children in them, and played with brown dolls. They attend school in a building where white people are the minority. Most of their friends look like them. My husband and I are honest with them about what society is like and how they might be treated. But in all of that discussion and appreciation of their brown-ness, I sometimes feel like they are losing me. They are my children. I carried them in my womb, nursed them all until they were toddlers, and I hold them close to me each and every day. 

Adults in our world (both brown and white) seem to see them as only one color. Brown people all offer the same advice, "Prepare them for this world where they will only be seen as brown. They need to learn to defend themselves; they need to learn to be strong." They say, "Look at our president--he is biracial, but our society treats him as black! Of course he calls himself black." They remind me of history, "For generations, our society has adhered to the 'one-drop rule' and your kids need to be ready for that."

I hear all of that, but here I am. Their mother. White. I want them to be ready for whatever the world throws at them, but I also want them to know that they come not only from their father--they come from me. They carry my blood and the blood of my ancestors. There is more to them than their brown-ness. There is also German, Lithuanian, English, and Irish a blood in them. I want them to embrace it all--everything that is in their history, their genetics, their heritage. And I do not say this because of any sense of white privilege...I say this because I feel there should be some kind of "Mother Privilege." I believe this: if you have grown a human being in your body, and you have given your heart, mind, soul over to one purpose--making that human being grow up happy and healthy--why should they be asked to deny you as their blood? Why should they allow society to take away the fact that you are their mother...that you are white...that half of them is white?

I want to thank Heidi Durrow for writing this book, for her work on Mixed Chicks Chat and with the Mixed Roots Festival. Hearing Nella's voice, listening to the podcast, and reading about the Festival shows me that there is a group of people willing to call themselves Mixed, willing to honor all of themselves and all of their heritage. I hope my children can follow their courageous example.


  1. Great post Jen!  This sounds like an excellent book and I totally get you on your experience below.  I would hate for my daughter to feel like she can only identify one way or another...that she must identify Latina because that's what people see her as, or that she must identify white in order to be accepted by mainstream white society.  My hope is that she can define herself in terms of her heritage and not her race.  Ultimately, it's a difficult discussion for most, because society is not as accepting of mixed ancestry...even though it's much more common than people would assume. A lot of the problem has to do with the fact that we are trained not to talk about mixing and are taught to see it as a "spoiling" or "watering down" of races.  This misconception needs to be broken down and destroyed and I love that the Mixed Chicks are playing a vital role in that.  I can't wait to read Heidi's book.  Thanks so much for sharing review with us!

  2. Thanks Chantilly! I hope you get a chance to read the book. It is made me think about some important things. I am also really looking forward to listening to you on Mixed Chicks Chat. I think you will have a really interesting conversation!

  3. I'm not totally up to date on the psychology of racial identity formation, but I think that the current view is that bi-racial adolescents and young adults complain that they feel forced to choose one race or another, but that they are very much both. I think they are happier when they get to "be both". The problem is that living a life of two or more races is so incredibly individualized. All three of your kids will end up dealing with these issues in different ways. Your job is to do what you are doing. Inoculate them against the ignorance they are bound to encounter and teach them about all of their heritages. That allows them to be the complete humans that they are. Good luck!

  4. Thanks, Lonna! What you're saying about racial identity formation matches the experience of the character in this book as well as many other articles, posts, books I've read. It seems really difficult for people to fight the pressure to choose one side. I think that's why I am so impressed by the author (a self-proclaimed "Afro-Viking") and by some celebrities who aren't afraid to declare that they are biracial--Derek Jeter and Hines Ward are a couple who have been in the news lately. 

    Bobby and I asked the kids recently what they say when people at school ask them the question, "What are you?" (We haven't coached them on snappy comebacks, yet, like "duh...I'm Human!") All 3 all say that they tell people they are Mixed.  We are trying to support them so that when the peer pressure gets tougher to fight, they still feel like they can give the same answer. Those teen years are going to be tough, though...they are when you don't have racial identity issues, right? You and I, we can definitely remember some tough times...and we were just 2 white chicks! Thanks for your support and comment :) You're the first old friend from real life to visit my blog. (Mom's been here to tell me I have a typo, though LOL!)

  5. I agree with Lonna, Jen... I really oppose anyone trying to tell me that my child is one thing or another. Especially when it depends on what she may look like as she relates to what my husband and I look like {if that makes any sense... neither of us are white}. This is going to sound, and is, a gross generalization, but anytime I have heard the type of advice you mention above, its usually from older people. Those who grew up in the midst of the African American civil rights movement. And honestly, things ARE different. Definitely not perfect, but better I hope. I won't raise my daughter to be defensive of her brown-ness. Love, appreciate, adoration and recognize the beauty of it? Yes. Understanding that some people are ignorant of that beauty and to have compassion for their lack of knowledge? Sure. Defensiveness, I will not teach. The last thing I want my child to waste her time with is trying to convince other people who she is. That negative perspective is draining, and can suck you dry of all things wonderful.

    Thanks so much for this review! So looking forward to the read!

  6. Hi Vanessa! Thanks for your comment!  I agree that things are different than they were, and are changing more every day. How can they not with so many mixed families around now, right? But some of that advice has come to me very recently, and from people who are a lot younger than me. Maybe it depends on where we are in the country (kind of like you were talking about in your post?) 

    Great point about not teaching defensiveness. I am definitely thinking on that...it seems like a fine line: teaching kids to stick up for themselves, but at the same time teaching them not to get defensive, just be who they are. Parenting is a complicated business!

    I hope you do get a chance to read the book. It was a pretty powerful read!

  7. I have this book sitting in my TBR-pile! It would hurt me if our son did not embrace his Mexican heritage. Even so, I would never impose his identity on him. Hopefully he will have received all the love, education and support from us to embrace his biracial (Mexican-Italian) heritage as he grows into adulthood. He's only eight-years-old and his awareness and willingness to speak of both brings a smile to my face.

  8. Jen, I have the book and I'm almost finished with it.  I'll be doing a review on Bicultural Mom in the next week or two.  :) 

  9. Excellent! I look forward to reading your review! 

  10. I'm mixed too and have that same problem, but I refuse to let people label me as either white or black. I tell them I'm mixed and that's that. Don't call me either one. Some people consider me white and some consider me black, but they can't tell me what I am :p

  11. Actually I read this book called caucasian I think.... I don't remember.... but it was about 2 sisters who had a white mom and a black dad. They separated because of the racial tension (I think) and the sister that looked white stayed with the mom and the sister that looked black stayed with the dad. It's mostly about the white girls life growing up hiding the fact that she was part black because people wouldn't have accept her.


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