And in the meantime, I’ve read many books and many zines—many, many more than I can recall here to make up for the inexcusable gap in time (especially when it comes to blogging.) I don’t know what sealed my fate with this blog, if it is was just that things were getting busier for me, or that I was reading less, but probably a combination of the two.
Lately I have been reading a lot. It happened because I put a few books on hold at the library for myself several months ago. Some of them were pretty popular, so I signed up, received my number in line (~362) and resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be reading them for many months. Anyway, many months passed and all of a sudden, all my holds came in at once. All six of them. One of them being the nearly 1,000 page tome 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Another being the roughly 600 page Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. And of course, receiving all my holds at once meant that I had to read them all within 3 weeks. Which has lit quite a fire under me, and as a result, I have been knocking them back with vigor and enthusiasm for the past couple of weeks.
As a reminder, in this blog, I will go over my thoughts and impressions from the books I’ve read. There is a high possibility that these posts will contain spoilers, so consider this your alert.
I’ll start with the most recent book I finished, which was The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow. It was a quick and easy read in terms of the length and language, but it was terribly tragic from the first page onward. The story follows a biracial (born of a Dutch mother and African-American father) young girl growing up with her Grandma and Aunt in Portland, OR, after her mother jumps off the roof of a Chicago housing project with her baby sister and her little brother. The girl in the story also jumps off the roof, on her own accord, after seeing her family take the dive. She is the lone survivor of the “accident,” ending up with a damaged ear. Her father had left the family years before and felt unfit to care for the girl, so she moves to Portland.
Maybe you already know this about Portland, but it is seriously white. In fact, it is the whitest city in the country. It’s one of the aspects of Portland that bothered me most when I first got here, but I had not really thought about why Portland got this distinction was until a few months ago when I read this article by Portland State University professor Karen Gibson, which tracks the history of the African-American community in Oregon and specifically in Portland from the time the land was settled by Westerners until the present day. (It is a long read, but so very important, especially if you live in Portland. Read more about my thoughts on the article here.) Part of the reason that I feel so strongly connected to this article and what it talks about, as well as The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is that I live in the exact neighborhood where all these events took place. I currently live in the historically African-American part of town.
Over the past decade, the area has been consistently gentrified. Home prices in my neighborhood more than tripled from 1990, when my neighborhood was considered a ghetto, until 2000, when my neighborhood was considered the hot new place to live. But before that, it was the heart of the African-American community. It was legally the only neighborhood where Blacks were allowed to purchase homes, and the community was squeezed into this tiny area. And for several decades, the neighborhood flourished. A community center emerged, and the area was known for its tight-knit Black community. This is not to say it was all rainbows and kittens. In fact, Portland has historically been one of the most racist cities in the U.S., compared often in the paper as just as bad, if not worse, than places in the deep south. Blacks in the 1940’s who moved here left Portland more often than any other West Coast city because of the deep-seated racism that existed here.
Anyway, that all changed in the 1980’s, for many reasons including predatory lending, absentee landlords, gang warfare, and crack-cocaine, which ravaged the community, and my neighborhood. The neighborhood comprised 1 percent of the city’s land but contained 26 percent of the city’s abandoned houses, according to Karen GIbson’s article. The neighborhood continued to devolve until the city stepped in to try and clean things up. Artists moved into the surrounding neighborhoods, and suddenly it became a hip area to live.
I want to say more about the history of Portland and this particular neighborhood, but I fear I am getting way off track. There are plenty more atrocities I feel are relevant to the whole cycle of vibrant Black community to decline of the neighborhood to rock bottom ghetto to gentrification to the present day, but I will spare you. Please read the article. It is really important.
Back to the book. It is set in Portland in 1982 in my exact neighborhood. The places that she talks about are literally blocks from my house, establishments I pass every day. So of course, that piqued my interest and made it easy for me to get into. Also, she lives through the decline of the neighborhood, which parallels the decline of solid, loving figures in her life as they slowly die off or become severe alcoholics (a theme that runs throughout the novel). The entire novel, really, is one of loss and resilience.
One of the main themes, of course, is the girl, Rachel, trying to figure out where she fits in. Whether she is white or black. She often asks others, “What are you?” referring to their race. She does not think about it before she moves to Portland perhaps because she is too young or perhaps because she is often shipped around to military bases where the populations were quite diverse already. But from the first day she starts school in Portland, she realizes that she must categorize herself in order to fit in. She consistently rejects the idea that she is white, hearing in others’ voices that it is an insult when people say this to her. And yet, she does not quite fit in with the black students, either. She speaks differently (like a white girl), and she is more interested in becoming educated and going to college than fitting in with them.
There is another theme here that emerges, which is the role of education in identity, and the difference between becoming well-educated academically and well-educated in regards to street smarts and common sense. Rachel, who can speak Dutch and was well-educated by her mother before coming to Portland, is much more interested in being successful academically. She receives straight A’s, hoping that her Grandma will be proud of her, but instead, her Grandma seems more concerned about Rachel finding a nice man who will marry her and take care of her. On the other hand, Rachel’s Aunt Loretta encourages Rachel to study hard and pursue her interests. Loretta herself is an artist (a habit that her mother/Rachel’s Grandma discourages because she thinks it will discourage attention from men) and quite progressive. Rachel sometimes looks down on the way her Grandma speaks (“grammatically incorrect”) and what she knows, and she struggles to find peers she feels comfortable with. In the end, she leads a mostly isolated and lonely adolescence.
What interests me most about this particular theme is the idea that in certain communities, highly-motivated and intellectually curious children are forced to shed these interests if they want to fit in with their peers. It is something that I, as a white middle-class woman, have never experienced, but read about often. It seems a tragic decision to be forced to make.
BUT throughout the novel, and Heidi Durrow is very clear about this, it is obvious that although Rachel struggles, and although her life is fraught with tragedy, she remains capable of loving and being wholeheartedly. She is not irreparably damaged by the events that take place around her. Instead, she pushes through, sometimes more resigned than others, to carve out a path for herself that is not defined by her mother’s suicide/double homicide, nor the neighborhood she grows up in. Rachel is of course deeply connected to these events, but she does not let them tell her who she is. The possibility of having a fulfilling, happy life remains.
Anyway, the book was a good time capsule of Portland in the 80s and 90s. A bildungsroman that addresses issues of race, sexuality, class, inequality. And a good reminder, for me, of the events and forces that shaped where I live today.