Many of us got upset about the Trump policy to separate children from their parents at the US southern border. But most of us just signed petitions or sent letters to Congress. Celeste Ng channeled the outrage into a masterful novel titled Our Missing Hearts. Her previous novels, like Little Fires Everywhere also deftly unveil the evil underlying a society’s apparently calm surface.
But this tragedy takes on new significance as Russia uses a similar tactic of removing Ukrainian children. The ultimate hurt is to take what’s most precious, someone’s child—for all the righteous reasons, of course—such as the native American children put in now-notorious government boarding schools like Carlisle, PA. Ng’s poignant description fits a wide variety of these situations: No one who lost a precious person ever said, “We had enough time,” or “this was enough.”
The family central to this story lives under a harsh regime designed to protect “American culture,” and the parallels to Trump’s nationalistic policies, excluding people of color, hit us over the head like bricks. The lead characters are so innocent—Ethan, the father was a linguistics professor, demoted to shelving library books because his wife Margaret is suspect. She’s Asian and inadvertently, a line from one of her poems, now officially banned, has become the rallying cry for the resistance: “our missing hearts.”
Cleverly, the hope and practical steps for finding missing children circulate through an underground network of librarians, incensed because many of their books have been burned and their buildings stand almost empty. Wisely, Bird, the 12-year-old son of Ethan and Margaret, gravitates there when his mother mysteriously disappears in order to protect him. His father continues the deception, but Bird heard enough fairytales when he was younger to know how to follow mom’s clues and undertake a hero’s journey.
Hearts beating fast, readers accompany him, to ultimately discover how his mother is undermining inhumane policies, racism and intolerance of dissent. Her plan is brilliant, and as she points out, people just get angry when a protest stops traffic and slows their progress to work or home. But guerrilla art attracts thoughtful attention, because it shows that nonviolent protestors are more creative than their oppressors. Ng bases fictional examples on real ones: pacifist yarn-bombings, children’s statues carved in ice, and the Nativity scenes of the Holy Family in cages that surfaced for several years around Christmas. As Ng says in “Author’s Note”: “Bird and Margaret’s world isn’t exactly our world but it isn’t not ours, either.”
That same authenticity continues throughout, when Ng avoids a happy ending, but leaves it darkly ambivalent, unresolved as real life often is. What a grace to have authors hold a clear mirror to the unvarnished selves we’d rather not see.