The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Heidi W. Durrow (Adult Fiction)
Rachel Morse is eleven years old and living with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon. Born to a Danish mother and an African-American GI father, she finds herself caught between two very different worlds and struggles to find a place somewhere in the middle. However, it is the early 1980s and Rachel is often forced to choose between black and white: “I see people two different ways now: people who look like me and people who don’t look like me.” She builds her world around “last-time things” (like speaking Danish or saying Mor, which means mother) and “first-time things” (like feeling shame or excluded) and lives each day storing her anger and hurt inside an imaginary bottle. Fighting against a tragic past and facing an uncertain future, will Rachel have to give up one part of herself in order to embrace the other?
Durrow gives us a haunting and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a biracial girl desperately trying to find her place in the world. Like Rachel, Durrow’s mother was Danish, her father was a black serviceman, and she possesses a set of piercing-blue eyes. We can see what Durrow must have dealt with as we see Rachel longing to fit in and be accepted. Rachel’s backstory is tragic and unimaginable and one can only imagine the inner strength our young heroine possesses in order to avoid a fate like her mother’s. The beginning of the book is a little confusing as Durrow floods the reader with several characters in various situations across different points in time. The storyline eventually smooths out, but then you begin to understand the meaning behind the title. This launches the story in an unpredictable direction and the pace never slows from there.
Perhaps the most distressing storyline belongs to Nella, Rachel’s mother. A Danish immigrant, she is unused to the treatment her biracial children face in America (her marriage was generally accepted in Europe). As a mother, she loves her children unconditionally and vows to protect them at all costs. She is broken by the injustices thrown at her children and wonders why people are unable to see her children as she does: “My children are one half of black. They are also one half of me. I want them to be anything. They are not just a color that people see.”
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is haunting and harrowing. It is not one of those feel-good books that is wrapped up in a pretty bow. Instead, we are given a story that is raw and poignant and uncomfortably ugly but honest. Under anyone else’s pen, the reader might be left with a sense of hopelessness, but Durrow is, in a sense, telling us her own story which, at its very core, is a story of survival. A story where a girl refuses to be boiled down to simply this or that. She is more than just the sum of her parts and her acceptance of this is enough to give us a relatively satisfying ending. As Rachel says, “I’m not the new girl. I’m not the color of my skin. I’m a story. One with a past and a future unwritten.” And with that, the girl who fell from the sky realized that she had wings and could fly.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
A Medal for Leroy
Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)
Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters. Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts: Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop. It is 1940s London and right after the war. Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry. But Michael doesn’t mind much. In fact, he likes being different, being special. Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him: his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war. But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.
A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army. Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave. Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin. Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages. He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.
In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.” Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
The Inn at Lake Devine
Elinor Lipman (Adult Fiction)
“It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.”
In the summer of 1962, Natalie Marx’s mother mailed about a dozen inquiries to various cottages and inns along Vermont’s Lake Devine. All came back with the standard rate card and cordial note. All, that is, but one. “Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles” was neatly written on textured white stationery. This act of blatant and brutal honesty ignites young Natalie’s quest to seek justice and acquire vindication and understanding.
This book was an engaging read, but seems to fall victim to its own misleading marketing. On the cover, it’s touted as a “witty romantic comedy”. While there are spots of flirtatious frolicking, describing it as a Romcom might be a bit of a stretch. Also, in the synopsis, we’re led to believe that Natalie encounters “a small bastion of genteel anti-Semitism” at this particular lakeside inn. In reality, it is only one individual who openly exhibits this prejudice. Ironically, we find out that Natalie’s own family is not immune to their fair share of prejudice, which proves to be far more damaging to Natalie than what she experienced at Lake Devine.
Lipman gives us a charming book with enough plot twists and interesting characters to keep the reader’s interest. However, don’t expect “a tale of delicious revenge” as one reviewer stated on the back cover. Rather, The Inn at Lake Devine is a light read, which can be made even more enjoyable if sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking a lake.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com