What an amazing debut for a novel. It was written with a style of simple prose and yet packs a powerful punch. Something that gives rise to a new awakening in literature. In the wake of a family tragedy, Rachel, a biracial girl and the lone survivor of a horrendous fall from an apartment building, moves to Portland to be with her paternal grandmother after her hospitalization. There, in her new town, she develops an awareness of categories of black and white, (divisions that weren’t as seemingly evident where she previously lived in Europe) and where she tries to contend with how she fits into this new society that deigns to define her (and everyone else) by race. As a lone survivor to the preceding distress in her life that wipes her family out, she is separated from her mother and siblings. This book was chosen by Barbara Kingsolver as the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction because it ‘takes on’ issues of social justice.
On February 12, 2011, my husband and I had the amazing opportunity to meet with Heidi in person at an indie bookstore, RJ Julia, in Madison, CT. where she made an appearance for a reading. In person, she’s sweet, petite, lovely and with a flowing ease spreads a generous warmth to her faithful readers who’ve travelled from near and far to meet with her. Not to mention shrewdly intelligent. I was, to the say the least, very impressed with her, both as an author and an individual. She is more than happy to share her inspirations for this novel, and off the path, the journey she’s travelled as a writer that landed her to this point as a New York Time’s Bestselling Author. RJ Julia set her up in the front of the room on a comfortable chair where she proceeded to give a reading.
Now, as we continue our story: Rachel’s mother, Nella, was a Danish woman, whom (deigning to protect her children) we later come to discover had her own issues to battle with that would later come inflicted upon her family, and that her father, an African-American GI who, although he watches over her recovery in the hospital, ultimately leaves Rachel in the care of his mother. Abandoned twice, Rachel must wrestle not only with her newly acquired social status (which as a young girl, she handles remarkably well) but she must also face the issues of her past that had torn apart the very fabric of her family.
Realize now that this is a ‘coming-of age’ novel. Something we’ve all gone through, regardless of what our own personal experience of that issue entailed. When we go through that God-forsaking period of life (it seems to grab us during adolescence, sometimes right into highschool) where we catch the identity crisis bug. That pivotal epoch of life when we are challenged to define ourselves to our peers. We are tyring to figure out who we are, where we belong and who our friends should be. A time where we have to make up our mind on our own distict individuality and where it ranks us in the world. In highschool, these ranks are clearly defined in social heirarchies that we refuse to be relegated or pegged into, (though some are content to resign to whatever classification they’re thrown into) since we’d rather make that choice for ourselves. Remember the ending quote in The Breakfast Club from little geek Brian Johnson who wrote with an incomplex honesty to the principle, “Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is “a brain”…Andrew Clark: …”and an athlete”…Allison Reynolds: …”and a basket case”…Claire Standish: …”a princess”…John Bender: …”and a criminal”…Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”
For those of you who came from this era, I’m just trying to make a point that there is a common thread between this novel and many of the classic films we’ve seen growing up during the cottage industry days of so many teen dramas. The point of which was to make us realize that there is something more to each of us then our stereotypes (brought on by the flavor of our ‘not always well-received’ images) suggest.
For Rachel, she finds herself tangled between two worlds; on the one hand, she has light skin and blue eyes and therefore she is not black due to these contrasting features. On the other hand, she is not exactly white either because her skin is dark enough that gives enough alert to her biracial identity. Rachel has much to contend with as a young girl and Durrow handles this story gracefully and with unflinching and open honesty, showing no fear in addressing what could be a thorny topic. Whether you’re able to associate yourself with her situation of biracial identity or not, there is still a feel for the ‘familiar’ in her plight to ‘fit in’. Alienation is not just exclusive to race. Many children and adolescents don’t fit in with their peers for a number of reasons. The story addresses issues of race and class, family tragedies, told easily, gently and delivered frankly from each characters’ personal observation. To be honest, Durrow simply writes fearlessly.
I could not put this book down. It touched me so deeply. It’s a refreshing read in a novel of this sort. There is no anger, no judgment, no ill will. Just forgiveness. And a willingness to find an inner courage. Rachel is threatened in that her social economic class and a painful past, patronizes to define her and her future. But Rachel is a character that knows her worth runs deeper than the vagaries of the world. Durrow encapsulates it all so eloquently when she delivers the lines of her lead protagonist, “I’m not the color of my skin. I’m a story. One with a past and a future unwritten.”
Throughout the book, we get a peek, small glimpses into Rachel’s past told by alternating points of view from each contributing character, each chapter climbing to that final, climactic build up in the story where the most profound incident of Rachel’s life is finally revealed. I was just so stunned when I read it. Yet in spite of it all, Durrow brings light into the storyline through Rachel’s strength and forgiveness. So there is hope delivered in its final pages. This is one novel I would strongly recommend that readers not miss.