Title: Our Missing Hearts
Author: Celeste Ng
Audiobook Length: 9 hours and 51 minutes
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Dystopia
Read Start Date: February 14, 2023
Read Finish Date: February 24, 2023
Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads: A novel about a mother’s unbreakable love in a world consumed by fear.
Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
My Review: The book follows the stories of Bird and his mother Margaret. The first part is about Bird. He received a letter from his mother and using it as a clue to her whereabouts, he tracks her down. Although only 12, he travels to NYC by himself to find her. The second part of the book is about Margaret, her past, and the events that led to the reason why she had to abandon Bird and his father. Additionally, we learn of Margaret’s protest and we see how the same is carried out.
The story is set in a world where Chinese-Americans and anyone of Asian descent are despised and seen as “other” due to their supposed responsibility for a global financial crisis. In Our Missing Hearts Asians are being attacked with impunity, and the children of so-called “problem” Asians are being taken away by the government and placed in the care of white families to maintain political control and silence dissent against discrimination. The book echoes the real-world experiences of the pandemic, where Asian Americans were being subjected to hate crimes.
In Our Missing Hearts, books written by Asian authors are banned, or worse, destroyed.
“We don’t burn our books, she says. We pulp them. Much more civilized, right? Mash them up, recycle them into toilet paper. Those books wiped someone’s rear end a long time ago.”
The disturbing work of fiction depicted in this book draws unnerving parallels to the current state of our world, making the idea of such a scenario seem plausible. However, amidst this frightening reality, the book also showcases the presence of virtuous individuals who stand up for what is right.
A young woman’s protest, using the book of poetry entitled “Our Missing Hearts,” written by Margaret, served as a catalyst for the unraveling of Margaret’s family life. Margaret had written the poems about her son Bird and the experience of motherhood, but the words were co-opted as a symbol of rebellion against the unjust taking of children from their families. The missing children represent the missing hearts of their mothers, and Margaret’s work became a rallying cry for those who sought to expose this injustice.
Overnight Margaret became the face, the voice, the reason for the protests, making it impossible for her to stay at home. Had she stayed, Bird would have been taken, like so many children before him. Margaret fled to protect her family–to ensure that her son would grow up with his father–and in turn, Bird’s father had to maintain the rouse. That Margaret’s beliefs were not his own.
The novel’s theme appears to be about the power of storytelling and the value of knowledge and literature in a society that seeks to control and silence dissenting voices. Through the character of Bird, the novel explores the dangers of authoritarianism and the importance of questioning the status quo. The government’s efforts to erase literature deemed unpatriotic and to relocate children of dissidents highlight the dangers of limiting access to knowledge and information. The novel also explores the impact of family separation and the longing for connection and identity, as Bird embarks on a quest to find his mother and reconnect with his cultural heritage. Ultimately, the novel suggests that individual acts of defiance and the preservation of cultural heritage can be powerful tools in resisting oppressive systems.
This book was very moving and was written with beautiful prose.
“breathing in the peculiar smell of the library: a mix of dust and leather and melted vanilla ice cream. Warm, like the scent of someone’s skin.”
“There is no snow, yet, to hold footprints, and in a moment, as his father disappears from sight, it is as if he never passed that way at all. Today it strikes Bird as unbearably sad, to pass by and leave no trace of your existence. To have no one remember you’d been there.”
I can’s say enough good things about this book. If you read only one book this year, please make it this one.