This is another recommendation by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads), and another hit. Heidi W. Durrow’s novel is the story of a girl whose father is an African-American G.I. who meets and marries a Danish woman. So, Rachel, the main character, is biracial or multiracial. We can talk about exactly what those words mean in a moment, but she spends the first part of her life living with her Danish mother, speaking Dutch and as far as we can tell, not thinking much about race until her mother dies in very tragic circumstances, and Rachel is left to be raised by her black grandmother who lives in Portland, Oregon. The racial territory of the United States is at the core of this novel, as Rachel finds herself in a classic position of marginality…she doesn’t quite belong anywhere. She’s not Danish or white, but she doesn’t really fit in perfectly with her black family in Portland either. She can never sing quite right in church the way her grandmother and the other churchgoers do.
I interviewed a biracial couple once and what I distinctly remember from that interview is something the white mother said. They both told me about the discrimination their children had faced growing up in a small community and this discrimination was something new to the mother. She looked at me across her living room at one point and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have fallen in love and gotten married and had children. Maybe it was selfish of us, because of what our children have had to go through.” Can you imagine the tragedy of someone thinking those thoughts? Rachel’s mother in the novel, Nella, is even less prepared for what it means to have children who are seen as belonging to a different race because she is not from the United States, and the novel does a good job demonstrating the perspective of a European trying to figure out our racial system, not in an abstract way but through the daily experiences of her children.
I say children who are seen as belonging to another race rather than children who are of a different race because though race is something that has the real power to destroy lives in our society, it is also something we created ourselves. There’s another character in the novel, Brick or Jamie, who is as “light skinned-ed” as Rachel, and towards the end of the novel, she asks him what he “is.” Just black, he says. And it’s a small moment that reveals race for the fiction it is. If people like Brick who have two black parents can be as light skinned as someone who is biracial, what exactly is it we’re looking at here? Science seems to indicate that everyone is actually multiracial, though the correct term might more accurately be multi-geographical. Genetic differences don’t map along the lines of the groups that we identify as races. Yes, people physically look different, but they look different in lots of different ways. Why not create a race of people based on how your ear lobes attach? It would have as much meaning as creating races based on skin color, facial features or hair texture.
|Heidi W. Durrow, the author|
Race is a murderous fiction, though, because as arbitrary as it is on some levels, it is also often deadly. Rachel is a character trying to negotiate those deadly waters, and in moments, the novel raises to real levels of beauty and humor. It’s interesting and at times a little disturbing to be in Rachel’s mind as she interacts with her black family. She sometimes looks down at her grandmother, her friends, and other black people. You wonder how much of this is a small child reacting to people who are different from her family after having rather traumatically lost that family, or if we’re supposed to believe that Rachel herself has internalized the racism of the United States, or some combination of the two.
One of the snippets on the back of this book calls it post-modern. I have no idea what that means in this context. My best guess is that there are definitely holes in the text if you pay attention where the meaning isn’t exactly spelled out for you. You’re not always exactly sure what Rachel is thinking or feeling. But I think that’s part of what makes this book interesting, the blank spaces to fill in.
Mor is Rachel’s Danish mother:
Sometimes I think Grandma and Mor are two sides of the same coin. They are two sides of a coin that I can hold in my hand at the same time.
Rachel’s explanation of what the blues (Etta James) is:
“Well, I would explain the blues this way: Like for me, I imagine inside of a person there’s a blue bottle, you know?”
I feel shaky when I say this but also good. I’ve never told anyone about the blue bottle before.
“The bottle is where everything sad or mean or confusing can go. And the blues–it’s like that bottle. But in the bottle there’s a seed that you let grow. Even in the bottle it can grow big and green. It’s full of all those feelings that are in there, but beautiful and growing too.”
In bed later, I stare at the ceiling for a long time. I am thinking: What if Mor knew about the blues? What if she had thought that sometimes there’s a way to take the sadness and turn it into a beautiful song?