When Fiction Suddenly Isn’t: Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Had I read Celeste Ng’s latest, “Our Missing Hearts,” when it was published last fall, I may have been a little more reluctant to believe it to be more than a fairly plausible guess at what the future could hold.

And then Florida became a thing.

Empty bookshelves, to me, is more than simple outrage. I mean, of course — any common sense person would be, or should be, upset at the practice of selective censorship. And at the notion a small-minded narrow swath of people are serving as judge and jury when it comes to reviewing questioned books for appropriateness.

But as someone who, like Sadie and Bird, found libraries to be a safe space as a kid, the vision of an empty shelf where books once stood at the ready is almost violent in nature. Abhorrent.

And that now feels like it was just the start — controlling university curriculums, forcing citizen journalists to “register” their blogs should they choose to write about government. It’s surreal. These so-called politicians leaning into their arguments under the guise of patriotism and protecting children could just as easily serve as the prequel to Ng’s tale of a young bi-racial boy in search of his mother in the age of PACT — Preserving American Culture and Traditions.

Set in present day Boston and New York City, Noah “Bird” Gardner lives with his father post-Crisis in a Cambridge dorm. A financial downturn-turned-full blown economic meltdown became a convenient excuse to condone anti-Asian sentiment, and through no fault of her own, Bird’s mother, Margaret, finds herself on the run in order to protect Bird from the possibility he’ll be re-settled with a more “patriotic” family.

Bird is barely a teenager, and his father won’t share any information abut his mother, so it’s up to him to uncover the origins and meaning behind a mysterious piece of paper that arrives one day — a series of hand drawn cats. A clue. A chance.

Bird’s journey, and the mystery of Margaret Miu, is as emotional as you would expect, and a reminder of the lengths parents will go to protect their children. The fiercest of loves defined by sacrifice. Sacrifice of personal happiness, personal liberty. The willingness to give up everything to ensure their safety. It’s nothing short of tragic.

Ng’s depiction of a post-Crisis, PACT America is Spot.On. Really, frighteningly so. Bird serves as witness to acts of violence that while fictional in nature on the page, have indeed occurred. The world she has conjured not only is possible, but probable in certain political circles. And while the topic itself isn’t sunshine and butterflies, the story remains incredibly engaging. It’s a page turner from which you’ll have to force yourself to take a pause now and then simply to process.

Great book club fodder — as participants can debate Ethan’s reticence, Bird’s bravado, Margaret’s penance. I’m left hoping Margaret’s second greatest accomplishment made a difference in Ng’s vision of America, and that we too can stop, listen and change for the better.

Here’s hoping common sense makes a comeback.

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