The grim, penetratingly observed story of a half-black teen and her struggles with racial identity in 1980s America.
Rachel is the daughter of a Danish woman and an African-American GI. When the marriage fails, in part because of lingering damage from an accident that took place before Rachel’s birth and of which she knows nothing, her mother takes Rachel and two younger siblings to live in Chicago. But the odds are stacked against a single mom rearing three small children in poverty while dealing with her alcoholism and an abusive boyfriend. The family’s troubles are exacerbated to the point of disaster by the fact that the bewildered Mor (“that’s mom in Danish,” Rachel explains) doesn’t really grasp the implications of her children’s ambiguous racial status and is not prepared to deal on their behalf with prevailing American notions of what race is. After a horrific tragedy, Rachel goes to live with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Ore., where she is for the first time immersed in black culture and thinks of herself as being contained by, or constrained by, racial categories, prejudices and expectations. Interlaced with Rachel’s story is that of her Chicago neighbor Brick, son of a woman who prostitutes herself for drugs. He witnessed the awful incident that nearly ended Rachel’s life and in the aftermath became the unlikely keeper of a family secret. After years roaming the country as a runaway, he lands in Portland and happens upon Rachel in a coincidence not, perhaps, quite earned. Nonetheless, Durrow’s debut won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for a fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.
Nothing especially groundbreaking here, but the author examines familiar issues of racial identity and racism with a subtle and unflinching eye.