Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Celeste Ng is an author who uses her voice not only to entertain, but to also lead a personal fight against the discrimination and injustice still suffered by Americans of Asian descent. In her latest novel, Our Missing Hearts, she tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy going out on a quest to find his missing mother, a Chinese-American poet, amidst a country gripped by national fervour and excessive patriotism.
Table of contents
Celeste Ng Sends a Young Boy on a Mission
The knowledge that various people and cultures suffer discrimination in the United States is nothing new, but therein lies the problem. It’s an issue so deeply-ingrained and consistent, it becomes natural to forget about and see it fade into the background by those unaffected. The treatment of Asian-Americans has always been a dark and ugly stain on the country’s history, and Celeste Ng has been shining the light on it for years, as she does with her latest novel, Our Missing Hearts.
The story begins by introducing us to Bird Gardner, a relatively unremarkable twelve-year-old living with his loving yet broken father. He was once a linguist, but has now been relegated to working as a library assistant, doing his best to provide what little he can for his son. Both of their lives have gone downhill three years ago, when his mother Margaret, a Chinese-American poet, suddenly vanished without a trace.
Having gotten accustomed to leading a quiet and unassuming existence, Bird knows not to ask too many questions about his past, and to simply keep his head down and under the radar as best he can. Living in a time when the Preserving American Culture and Traditions (PACT) act is in full effect, Bird’s obvious Asian origins make him a target for a nation caught up in an aggressive kind of patriotism.
One day, Bird receives a letter from his mother, or more precisely, a sheet with all sorts of cats drawn on it. Not a single word in it, but he knows where it’s from, and despite having grown to disavow his mother and her poetry, he can’t help but wonder where she is and what really happened to her. He decides to set out on a journey destined to show him the worst and the best of what the nation has to offer.
His grand voyage will take him back time and time again to the various stories, myths and poems his mother filled his head with when he was younger, through an underground network of librarians intent on preserving banned literature, and into the stories of many other children, taken from their parents. Ultimately, he’ll have the chance to participate in an act of defiance, and to dream of a better tomorrow.
Walking the Shoes of a Scapegoat in Our Missing Hearts
Speaking strictly of North America, I think I would be correct in saying that while there are many people (especially those belonging to minority groups) who have experienced racism and injustice, the majority of us have only seen it from the sidelines. Naturally, it’s the sort of thing you probably have to live through yourself to truly understand it, but I think Celeste Ng essentially gives us the closest thing possible in Our Missing Hearts.
Having grown up as an Asian-American herself in a family which settled the land long ago, the author has a fair amount of experience in dealing with the issue, and she often uses Bird as a vehicle to explore what it’s like being a scapegoat for all of society’s woes. Rest assured, her approach is as tasteful and measured as can be, at least as far as the topic is concerned.
More often than not, Bird won’t necessarily be a victim of some random troglodyte yelling slurs at him, but rather at the mercy of the laws of the land. The discrimination he experiences is largely systemic in nature, rooted in the rising feelings of patriotism fuelled by a presidential administration hell-bent on preserving what they believe to be “pure” American values. Naturally, the irony is lost on many.
What makes it hit truly hard is the fact that the discrimination Bird experiences doesn’t require any specific agents one can fight back against. Rather, he is powerlessly pitted against an idea, a pervasive mentality he can only submit to, or run away from. Celeste Ng does a remarkable job at communicating his state of mind, and ensuring we feel the exact way he does.
While the topic itself isn’t anything new (especially if you’re already familiar with the author’s other works), but it’s one I firmly believe we need to reminded of time and time again, especially because it can be applied on a wider scale. We can’t allow ourselves to forget about its existence, and more importantly, just how easy it can be to fall for such a rotten mentality while thinking we’re working for the greater good.
How Art Weaves History
Now that we’ve gotten the main topic out of the way, I think you’ll be relieved to hear the whole novel goes far beyond simply focusing on the idea of racism. It did feel to me like the central topic of Our Missing Hearts, but there is also a whole adventure to be found here, one which teaches us some surprising things about both history and the true power of art.
The path walked by Bird takes him on an excursion of certain events which have been known to historically occur, allowing us to get acquainted with the fates of various people who were either victims or tried to fight back against systemic racism in their own ways. We never stop on any secondary characters for too long, but do get to spend enough time with them to acquire a solid understanding of who they are and what motivates them.
Art also takes up a fairly large part of the stage in Our Missing Hearts, with Celeste Ng constantly inserting various poems and stories Bird remembers from his earlier days. I have to be honest here, a few such stories felt a little superfluous and didn’t add much to the plot or the characters, but thankfully those misses were few and far in-between.
The mystery at the centre of the novel is also quite compelling: the search for a vanished mother who got back in touch with cat drawings. As we learn bits and pieces of information about her past, we can’t help but try and fill in all the blanks ourselves as we inch closer and closer to the ultimate revelations, and even though we don’t see her for most of the novel, she ends up becoming as central a character as our protagonist.
Celeste Ng doesn’t colour her novel with darkness and despair completely, and despite the heavy subject matter she often pauses to also look at the beauty this world has to offer, and the selfless acts of sacrifice people can make. Most interestingly, she takes an in-depth look at the kind of power art holds over people, how it can shape their opinions, and how it can spark the fire of change, as it has many times before.
|352||Penguin Press||Oct. 4 2022||978-0593492543|
The Final Verdict
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng is a unique, educative and enthralling work of literature and fiction, following a young boy’s quest to find his missing mother while experiencing systemic discrimination and witnessing the horrifying nature of patriotic zeal in the United States.
If you’re in search of an entertaining yet also meaningful novel, the kind which won’t leave you indifferent and teach you something new about life in a more general sense, then I think you absolutely must give this book a shot.
Celeste Ng is an American novelist and writer of short stories. Her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, published in June of 2014, won the Amazon Book of the Year Award. Her short story Girls at Play won the 2012 Pushcart Prize and the 2015 Alex Award, and in 2020 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, came out in 2017, and her third novel, Our Missing Hears, in 2022.