Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Check which box?

Every year for the past ten, my library has celebrated a "one book" community read, and practically every year I sigh and say, here's what you get when you pick a book by evaluating it by checklist. This year, I went back to review my thoughts on previous years, and found I only unequivocally liked Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates. The rest have run from yawn to I'm not interested in this lesson. I've listened to the selections (2011, 2010, and 2008 [A Long Way Gone, which I forgot to blog about ... hmmm]) when I could, and was underwhelmed each time. The interesting thing is that I have almost no strong feelings (pro or con) about most of the books, because they are such middle-of-the-road selections that it's hard to muster up any enthusiasm or dismay.

Heidi W. Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is another one that moved me neither way. It is the story of Rachel Morse, the only survivor of a horrific family tragedy. Rachel's father is an African American serviceman who met Rachel's Danish mother while serving in Germany. Following her recovery, her father begs his mother to take Rachel in and raise her. Living with her grandmother and beloved Aunt Loretta in a mostly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s, Rachel begins to understand for the first time that others see her as African American. Yet, there are African Americans who view Rachel -- with her light skin and green eyes -- as not black. Durrow's story -- inspired by her own origins, which do not include the novel's central tragedy -- follows Rachel as she grows into young womanhood, searching for her place in the world.

The novel also includes the story of a boy who witnesses Rachel's fall, who visits her in the hospital and meets her father, and whose life is transformed by what he learns there. Brick's story is told in third-person narration. Entries from Rachel's mother Nella's sobriety diary round out the novel as the story of what actually happened to the family is teased out.

Durrow tells her story deliberately; even though we only fully understand Rachel's tragedy near the end of the novel, Durrow's focus is actually on the characters. As is fitting in a novel about identity, who her characters are is what's important, not what they are. When Durrow does bring in big social issues -- American racism, black-on-black racism, poverty, gentrification, homelessness -- they feel ponderous, unnecessarily weighing down a story of interesting individuals.

The novel's three perspectives are read by three narrators (hooray!). Emily Bauer reads Rachel's narration, Kathleen McInerney reads the diary entries in Nella's slight Danish accent, and Karen Murray takes on the third-person narrative of the boy and of Nella's supervisor for a brief time, Laronne (pronounced LA-rhone). I've only heard Bauer read before; she has a youthful sounding voice that is a nice fit for Rachel. When she voices the novel's other characters -- notably its African Americans -- she's sounds, well, like a white girl trying to voice a black grandmother (I kept wanting to hear Bahni Turpin read this part). Still, she keeps the narrative moving along and Rachel's internal conflicts are movingly portrayed. McInerney's brief appearances are appropriately infused with sadness and dread, and her accent was consistent if very, very faint.

It is Murray who really stands out here -- her confident, natural voicings of all ages, races and genders make the third-person portions of the novel the most interesting to listen to. She doesn't try to match Bauer's interpretations of characters that they share, but I didn't find this a problem while listening. (I think this would only be noticeable if one narrator really tried a poor imitation of another narrator's style.)

OK, so Girl has some good points. But boy does it fulfill the Everybody Reads checklist (this is a checklist of my imagination, I am not privy to the selection process in any way). Racial/cultural minority - check. Overcoming personal losses - check. Coming-of-age - check. Contemporary story - check. I think the book has to clock in at under 300 pages - check. And for bonus points -- Portland, Oregon - check. (And isn't it a bit ridiculous that this book has been done twice before as community reads in Portland already!)

Now, I don't object to any of the above literary components, but when they show up over and over again in books that purport to be for everybody, I'm bored. Or, perhaps, after 10 years, I'm jaded enough that I now look for how the book fulfills everything that's ordinary in our community reading program. (Now I am taking everything that I wrote here and placing it further down the post, because truly I don't wish this rant to be the only thing worth sharing about this book.)

On a more positive note, it is certainly the best audiobook version of an Everybody Reads novel that I've heard. (Kind of faint praise, there ...)

[Durrow feels connected to the writer Nella Larsen, who shares her African-American-Danish heritage. This photograph was taken by James Allen in 1928, resides in the Library of Congress and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
Narrated by Emily Bauer, Kathleen McInerney and Karen Murray
HighBridge Audio, 2009. 6:57

1 comment:

Sue Jackson said...

I've heard about this one but haven't read it myself. Our library's recent selections for community reads have been Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I really enjoyed, The Soloist which I loved, and this year's selection is The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet which I have heard great things about and am looking forward to reading. It must be tough to try to pick a book that an entire community will enjoy reading.

What books or types of books do you think would work better for a community read?


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