Title: Our Missing Hearts
Author: Celeste Ng
Date Read: January 12, 2023
Snapshot of the book
Bird is a twelve year old boy living in a new town, in a small apartment, with his father– a clear departure from his childhood home where he remembers his mother tending her gardens and sharing folk stories with him; a happier time when his family was together. Since her mysterious and abrupt departure, he is coached by his father to simply forget her: her belongings removed, traces of her life with them erased, even his memories of her become elusive. The nickname she fought for him to have, Bird, is forbidden in favor of a return to his given name, Noah. So, when a letter arrives addressed to Bird, postmarked from New York, he knows his mother is reaching across her exile to contact him.
We are transported to a world in which neighbours are encouraged to call out the unpatriotic actions of those they interact with under the guise of a policy called PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act). PACT outlaws the promotion of un-American values and behaviour; requires citizens to report potential threats; and protects children from environments espousing harmful views. The racist (veiled as patriotic) throughline of the book is so hauntingly familiar that I had to pause and look up whether PACT was something that had actually been a policy in the United States, it rang as entirely plausible, I wondered at how I could have missed it.
I mean, this is the water we are swimming in: shortly after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act; which, although it does not directly advocate the use of racial profiling and discrimination, legitimizes and creates a surveillance society in which people hold their neighbors under suspicion. Further, while United States immigration law allows people who are fleeing violence and persecution to request asylum at or near the border; under President Trump the United States intentionally separated children from their parents to deter families from exercising this right. Moreover, Trump’s blatant racist views emboldened MAGA followers to act on their own racism in a multitude of forms during his candidacy and presidency. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, during a period of conservative revival in the United States which posed a very real threat to the developments of women’s rights (a torch recently picked up again by Republicans). Atwood has always contended that there was nothing in her fictional Gilead that hadn’t already happened. Likewise, Ng sets up a fictional United States in which Persons of Asian Origin are profiled, surveilled, targeted for racist abuse and mistreatment and deemed unfit to parent their own children.
Our Missing Hearts is a counter-cry to PACT, a snippet conceived by Bird’s mother, Margaret, in a poem she wrote. He finds the words written on slips of paper, spray-painted in graffiti near the subway, and published in the book his friend Sadie procures to convince him his mother is a hero.
Bird is determined to solve the riddle she has sent him, he knows it will lead him back to her– he is her missing heart. While remembering the fairy tales of his youth to make sense of her cryptic message he discovers a rogue group of librarians who pass information through the stacks in an effort to reconnect families. Our Missing Hearts is a gripping and heart-wrenching tale of love, prejudice, bravery, and connection. Ng’s writing is beautiful, worth every minute you spend reading it.
Snapshot of the book in my classroom
There are a few ways this book could be positioned in a high school classroom. First, to examine with Ng the racist world she creates, drawing the parallels to our own current culture. As Ng writes in the Author’s Note: “it isn’t exactly our world, but it isn’t not ours, either.” This would be an excellent shared read for the discussions it could provoke.
Second, Ng does not use quotation marks for dialogue in the novel, which opens up a writer’s craft discussion as well. All writers make choices– it is then up to readers to decide to what effect. It bothered me at first, but I came to accept it– the writing was clear and I followed conversations without the help of quotation marks. In an interview, Ng explained her choice like this: “I wanted the novel to feel slightly folkloric, almost dreamlike; for Bird, the events feel a little bit like stepping into a fairytale, one of the stories his mother told him when he was young. When you think of a story being told out loud, the way folktales often are, the voice of the person telling it and the voices of the characters kind of merge, if that makes sense. There’s a blurring between the person narrating, and the words of the story, and the things the characters say. So, removing the quotation marks helped create that effect for the reader. Instead of a clear, formal, writerly quotation mark, neatly marking off what’s dialogue and what’s narration, it blends a little.” (Penn, F. 2022).
Snapshot of the book in my life
The power of the love for your child– that is what resonates. Having children just puts the whole world into perspective. Becoming a mother wasn’t easy for me, but being one is the most wonderful, challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. My love for him is infinite, intense and affirming. I do not want to know the pain of losing a child, but I am wholly empathetic to the parents who have found themselves broken and empty from their missing hearts. I cannot imagine a worse pain.