Heidi W. Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is set in Portland in the 1980s. It's set in Northeast Portland, in a predominantly African American neighborhood, and its strongest appeal for locals is that it gives voice to some of the ways that Portland's neighborhoods have changed over the years: "Grandma was the first colored woman to buy a house in this part of Portland," reports the novel's young protagonist. "That's what Grandma says. When she moved in, the German dairy store closed, and the Lutheran church became African Methodist. Amen. That part's Grandma too. All of Grandma's neighbors are black now. And most came from the South around the same time Grandma did."
Girl's first-person narrator is a young girl, Rachel, half black, half Danish, who moved to Portland from Chicago to live with her grandmother after the deaths of her mother and siblings. Her Danish mother leapt from the top of an apartment building, Rachel and her siblings in tow; Rachel survived only because her mother's body broke her fall. The book is billed, presumptuously, as a novel for adults à la The Bluest Eye, but Rachel's troubles—the circumstances surrounding her mother's murder/suicide; the whereabouts of her absent father; her struggles with her own biracial identity—are boilerplate young adult material. An implausible parallel storyline, about a boy who saw Rachel fall and resolves to find her one day, further nudges the novel into only-in-YA territory. (No disrespect intended to the young adult genre—who's excited for the new Hunger Games book?!)
Durrow's terse prose is mostly written in the childish voice of her narrator, and it's clearly going for a less-is-more emotional wallop. Instead, though, there's a sort of emotional foreshortening effect—though the dramatic circumstances are writ large, Rachel herself remains at arm's length.
It's not a perfect book, but the perspective that Girl offers on Portland is invaluable. White people, especially white people who moved here from bigger cities, like to say that there are "no black people in Portland"—a statement that's willfully ignorant at best. This town has more stories to offer than the "Go-West-Young-Hipster" formulation for which we've recently become known. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky sheds light on one of them.