In the 1980s I taught an undergraduate student of mixed race; one of her parents was African, the other of European descent. One day she told me how much she resented her parents for having launched her into the world without a clear racial identity, as neither this nor that. At the time, I was struck dumb. The student was fully capable of following through the consequences of such thinking. Would she wish herself out of existence? How bad could it be?
Now well into the twenty-first century, "we" (or at least some of us) like to believe we are living in a postracial society. "We" believed that Barack Obama would lead us to that happy situation, or that, by electing him president of the United States, we had proved to ourselves and the world that we had already arrived there. More recently, as the national mood has soured, images hoisted by some of the president’s opponents—Obama with a bone through his nose, Obama in whiteface—have reminded us that we are not as securely settled in a postracial society as some of us would have liked to think.
In the United States the notion of a superior or at least dominating white majority has, statistically speaking, already washed out to sea, though the change has little to do with the descendants of Africans brought here as slaves. The majority of the US population will soon be minorities. Moreover, social categories of race increasingly fail to match genetic data, as in the case of Wayne Joseph, a black-identified man who discovered through a service of DNA Print Genomics that he was "57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian—and zero percent African." Clearly, we are already living in a postracial society. Our problem is that we don’t do it easily. As Mariah Carey told the London Observer earlier this year, "How many times do I have to tell you—my father was black. My mother’s white. In this country that makes you black, do you understand?"
Rachel, the protagonist and sometime narrator of Heidi Durrow’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is the child of an African-American military man and a Danish woman who met overseas. Rachel spends her early years in the cultural limbo of base housing—happily enough, it appears, until unkind destiny intervenes and she drops into American society, sometime in the 1980s, out of her own peculiarly constructed nowhere. Durrow’s novel contains enough malevolent improbability to tax the suspension of disbelief required by Victorian melodrama. Yet to scoff at its plot lines would be unwise, as the story is said to be based on a true one, and while one cannot know which bits are true, it is certain that truth can be more viciously incredible than fiction.
Unbeknown to Rachel until a long time afterward, her oldest brother, Charles, died in a house fire—before her birth. Later Rachel and her two younger siblings are born, or at least conceived; then her mother, Nella, leaves her father to follow to the United States a man who may be the father of Rachel’s youngest sister. The next catastrophe is the novel’s centerpiece, its details teased out to the bitter end; the mother and all three children take a fall from the roof of their Chicago tenement. Their plunge is the novel’s grim narrative bait, but even grimmer is the underlying question: how bad do things have to get (and how do they get that way) to move a parent to kill not only herself but also her children?