13 March 2010

Girl Who Fell From the Sky and Forest Gate

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow is an amazing book and the winner of the 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Thank you to Algonquin Books for the opportunity to read and review the Advance Reading Copy.
The Bellwether Prize is given only in even-numbered years and "consists of a $25,000 cash payment to the author of the winning manuscript, and guaranteed publication by a major publisher. The author will collect royalties in accordance with a publisher’s contract. The Bellwether Prize is unique; no other major North American endowment or prize for the arts specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility. Its intent is to advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. The prize is awarded to a previously unpublished novel representing excellence in this genre." (Description taken from http://www.bellwetherprize.org/info.html) The award was founded by and is fully funded by Barbara Kingsolver, who describes The Girl Who Fell From the Sky as "Haunting and lovely, pitch-perfect."
I couldn't agree more. With multiple narrators, as well as a variety of plots and subplots, we discover what it feels like to be a young biracial girl in Portland during the early 1980s. Rachel begins her story in Germany where she lives with her Danish mother, her black American father and her younger sister. Returning to the United States, Rachel is the sole survivor of a tragedy in Chicago where her mother and sister die. Rachel must learn to live with her Black paternal grandmother in Oregon. To further confuse the sad yet developing young girl, she faces racist attitudes that nearly crush her spirit. Over time, we learn her history and how she will face her future.
Another strong voice in the novel is Jamie - a young black boy who lived in the public housing unit near Rachel in Chicago and actually saw what happened to her family. Jamie faces racial discrimination as well and runs from his mother who is more interested in drugs than her own child.
Both young people develop friendships and relationships that both hurt and help them. I thought it was interesting that the author chose to describe Europe as more accepting of biracial relationships and people in general. And to place Rachel in northern and northwestern cities where typically racism is portrayed less negatively.
In many ways, this is partly Durrow's own story. On her Web site, she relates that she is biracial and faced many of the same questions as the title character when she was growing up in Oregon.
A wonderful book which examines racial attitudes and how far we have to go in mutual understanding in this country.

TITLE: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
AUTHOR: Heidi W. Durrow
PAGES: 560
TYPE: fiction, based on a true story
RECOMMEND: I loved it.
AWARDS: 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction

It was interesting that I received Forest Gate shortly after I completed the book mentioned above. It, too, deals with racial issues, but from a very different perspective. I could not have planned my reading any better and I would like to thank Simon & Schuster Free Press for the opportunity to read and review this first novel by Peter Akinti.

For me, this book was an incredible work of genius. I read the book very quickly and realized only on the very last page that this was a novel. This is a testament to the authenticity of voice, place and character crafted by Akinti. I typically try not to learn too much about a book I am about to read and I honestly thought this was a personal memoir written by two people, together. I was truly amazed when I found that it was not....so what was it?
It begins as the story of two young Black boys, both living in the Forest Gate area of London, England. This is an impoverished area and both boys felt that they had no opportunities in the future - they decided to commit suicide together by jumping off twin towers. One boy lived, the other died. The boy who lived spent time recovering living with the sister of the dead boy. The story is told in alternating chapters with the boy and the girl narrating. The feelings of hopelessness are palpable. Sadly, the suicide attempts are not the worst aspects of the lives of these three young people. And the racist attitudes of the people in their part of London and the surrounding areas are in stark contrast to the European model portrayed by Durrow in the previous book. I suspect this is because human attitudes, good and bad, can be seen in every situation, in every place and time. Hopefully, as we all begin to explore the negative impact of these attitudes through fictional accounts such as these we will slowly begin to move beyond stereotypes and racism.

TITLE: Forest Gate
AUTHOR: Peter Akinti
PAGES: 198
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I thought this was a very thought provoking and beautifully written book.

1 comment:

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

wonderful review of THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY! I had a hard time reviewing this one because I was left feeling so deflated at the end of it, and wondered if that was Durrow's goal (to keep the story with the reader). It was beautifully written, and Rachel's struggles came across as true/believable.

I haven't read FOREST GATE; looks like a good one to follow the Durrow book.