Monday, May 31, 2010

Another Portland novel: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I just finished reading Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, one of those books where you're very aware that you're reading a first novel, it's not perfect and there are moments that jar, but it's also something special and you're glad it got brought into the world.

Also, it's set in Portland!

This was the second book I've read recently that was set in Portland, the other one being The Mozart Summer. I didn’t know that either one was set in Portland until I started reading it: coincidence! Both books have scenes set in Laurelhurst Park. Both books have scenes set in Laurelhurst Park in the middle of the night!

Much of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky takes place in northeast Portland, a northeast Portland post-Vanport, pre-gentrification. When Rachel is eleven, she moves from Chicago to live with her grandmother at 4725 Northeast Cleveland Avenue (a block from where I was living a year ago, on the 4800 block of Cleveland), two blocks away from the Wonderbread factory (since closed), and we learn that:
Grandma was the first colored woman to buy a house in this part of Portland. That’s what Grandma says. When she moved in, the German dairy store closed [here’s some tangentially related Portland history], 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.
By the time Rachel is a teenager, the neighborhood has changed some more:
“Them closing the drive-through dairy was one thing,” Grandma says. “But not feeling safe in your own home . . . It was the best of the best black folk living around here when I first come. And the rest of them hard workers, mostly from the shipyards—not like them kids ruinin things just to get some new sneakers. Look at us now.”

Even I can see it. Things just aren’t the same. Across the street Mrs. Lewis put bars on her windows, and the neighbor next door got a big dog. There have been three break-ins on this street in the last month. On the block where there was a real grocery store, now there’s just a convenience store, a liquor store, a church, and a place that you can buy hair. The closest grocery store is a twenty-minute bus ride away.
An interesting book. Worth reading. Really ambitious structurally, with too many points of view, and a lot of unraveled threads left hanging (Aunt Loretta? What happened?), but Durrow does a lot with the huge amount of material and emotion and drama she tackles. Plus you could argue that’s how life is: structurally ambitious with too many points of view and unraveled threads hanging, too much material and emotion and drama. Hard to pull off in a novel, but completely captivating.

I need to finish this upstate New York novel I'm writing, so I can start a Portland novel.

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