Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere


I may be late to jump on the bandwagon praising Celeste Ng’s second novel, but it’s a skillfully crafted, absorbing read. She writes from the unique perspective of the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who came to the US, both parents pursuing and earning doctorates. Ng wanted to explore “what it is like to feel in between two different cultures, to have to negotiate that gap.” As that experience becomes more common, it helps to have a wise navigator’s insights.

Ng starts with a fire that destroys a wealthy family’s mansion, set by their youngest daughter. At the beginning, it seems implausible, unfathomable: why?? By the end, it seems perfectly logical: the clues or little sparks have been planted carefully throughout. Three intertwining stories make up the plot: complex, but easily accessible and seamlessly interwoven.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking sub-plot raises the question of adoption. Does a Chinese child belong with her birth mother, despite her mistakes and poverty, or with an affluent couple, desperate for children, who can meet every material need? That question seques into the larger one of motherhood: several relationships portray different styles. The anxious, controlling mom whose primary concern is for rules, order and perfection, loses her daughter in the end. That daughter is drawn to another mom who flaunts the rules, and cherishes her own daughter through an unconventional life as a vagabond artist. The reader is left reflecting whether anyone can ultimately control what matters most.

The setting itself contributes: Shaker Heights, OH, where the author grew up, so precisely planned that unsightly trash cans are never placed on the street,  but concealed behind the homes and discreetly picked up out of sight. The novel is filled with such rich metaphors for the human condition.

Ng quotes novelist Ian McEwan: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.” At a time when some people seem to have closed the shutters on the experience of others, it’s refreshing to read Ng’s thanks to her readers: “who have taken the great risk of stepping into another person’s mind and experience and letting it change them; who have allowed their minds to be open to another point of view, even if only for the space of a book.” And readers are grateful to her for graciously opening that door into another world.

May 21—Feast of Christian de Cherge and Trappist Martyrs of Algeria

Born in France, Christian de Cherge spent his youth in Algeria, where his parents taught him to respect Islam. His dad told the kids, “Let’s not kill each other over names.” As a young adult, he could share God-talk more easily there than in France. One friend, Mohammed, the father of ten, who shared a common love of God intervened when thugs aimed their rifles aimed at Christian. Because he defended Christian as a godly man, Mohammed was himself killed that night.


Christian later wrote, “In the blood shed by this friend, who was assassinated because he would not practice hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ would be lived sooner or later in the same country that gave me a tangible sign of the greatest love possible.”


Studying for the priesthood in Paris and Rome, Christian added intense study of the Qur’an. He wanted to seek “the notes that are in harmony” between Christianity and Islam, incorporated in a “both/and” spirituality. Later, as prior at Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algiers, he created there a safe space for respectful Muslim-Christian dialogue and prayer. Chapel bells mingled with the muezzin’s call to pray. Christian once counseled a Muslim woman worried about marrying a Christian, “we are only an envelope around a soul. Don’t worry about your skin.”


The Trappists farmed, became friends with local villagers and distributed medicine to the sick. Yet as violence escalated, the monks debated whether to remain, knowing they were in danger.


When one monk said, “we’re like birds on a branch—we don’t know if we’ll be leaving,” a Muslim woman complimented their commitment: “We’re the birds. You’re the branch.” Eventually all came to peace with the decision to stay, realizing that they rested in God’s embrace. They relied on their strengths: God, each other, their common prayer.


Eventually, rebels kidnapped and killed seven monks, but Christian had written a prophetic and forgiving letter three years before. He worried that his death would intensify anger at Islam. Despite his concerns, the last testament is filled with gratitude, extending even to his “friend of the last moment.” He meant his murderer, whom he would meet in heaven “like happy thieves,” who had both stolen paradise.


No Planet B

It seems like time for another Dunkirk. To briefly refresh World War II historical background before drawing the parallel: In May 1940, Nazi forces invaded Belgium and northern France. The retreat of British and allied troops to the coast of France became a race to evacuate before the Germans could occupy Dunkirk, the only remaining port on the English Channel.

On May 27, bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the harbor, so that many of the 4000,000 men thronging the beaches had to be ferried out to sea by petty craft pressed into service by the Royal Navy. The British Admiralty had been calling forth every kind of small craft it could find to rescue the troops; a scholar describes how “one of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves.” (

In the 2017 film “Dunkirk,” Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) of the Royal Navy sees the desperation of the situation, and hopes originally to rescue 30,000. Then he sees a small dot on the horizon coming from the direction of England; it materializes into the little fleet which with the support of the Royal Air Force, saved 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops.

Climate change today imperils all the people of planet earth. We’re familiar with the litany of devastation, addressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si.” Natural disasters, extinction of species, the damage caused by fires, floods and hurricanes should alert us to the horrific problems caused by global warming and rising sea levels. Some scientists estimate that only twelve years remain in which to make major changes before catastrophic loss. Yet some governments, including ours, seem oblivious to the urgent need.

When the institutions in which we’ve placed trust fail, we look to small but mighty individual efforts. Perhaps these will be like the heroic fleet that saved the troops waiting patiently at Dunkirk. It’s been especially heartening to watch the actions of young people, who will live with the disastrous effects of adult inaction.

In California, young climate strikers skipped school to attend with their parents and teachers the May 8 CalSTRS investment meeting. The California teachers’ pension fund has over $6 billion invested in fossil fuel companies; the students advocate divestment. Their motto: “stop funding to destroy my future.” As a retired teacher pointed out, “we worked for years to prepare students for their futures; how bizarre that pensions are invested in companies that depend on destroying the planet.”

The 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg leads the school strike movement around the world. She stands as a silent reminder outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. Addressing the U.N. climate summit in Poland last December, she asked, “Why didn’t you do anything when there was still time to act?”

In his poem “What Fifty Said,” Robert Frost writes, “I go to school to youth to learn the future.” Following the youthful lead, I’ve divested from gun manufacturers and fossil fuels. May we all learn to launch our small boats towards the Dunkirk of today.

What Every Girl Wants: A Man Who Cooks (Third Sunday of Easter)

Sheer genius how Jesus takes ordinary stuff and forms of it salvation. Nets, fish, boats, light garments. Simple words. Burning charcoal. No ponderous treatise. Not a footnote in sight. No titles nor tuxedoes. No rehearsals, no tension, simply a call we’ve heard before.

“Come, have breakfast.” The invitation sounds routine. But on closer look it means: “Be nurtured. You’ve probably not eaten for twelve hours or more. You’re looking woozy; food will energize. A full day ahead—you’ll need your strength.” We’ve heard it from mom, spouse or friends. But hearing it from Jesus?

Even better: what if we thought he’d died? There he is, calmly placing bread on the grill, asking for more fish. Why do we make him so distant, perfect, unreachable and glorified, when he is as close and natural in his serving role as a waitress who’s refilled the coffee 97 times this morning?

He doesn’t crow, “let me tell you about MY weekend!” Nor does he rehash gory details of Peter’s betrayal. Instead, he puts friends at ease, concerned whether they’ve caught anything to eat. With one word, “children,” he touches the sweet, needy, vulnerable self beneath the polished or cantankerous surface. He looks on them fondly: dripping, bedraggled, dazed with grief and sleeplessness, sloppy, dear.  He intersects that moment of their longing, and names their deeper identity: “children of God.” How intimately he knows human hunger, felt its ache himself. Feeding that the necessary prelude to any lofty mission. To be near him, even the less impetuous might jump into a lake.

Originally published as a reflection in Give Us This Day, 4-1-16.

See Kathy Coffey’s article on Columbine in the 4/15/19, 110th anniversary issue of America Magazine. Sadly, nothing significant has changed in gun control during the 20 years since it was first published.

Unexpected Resurrection Figures: the Houston Police Chief

During this season, I try to look for the “small r” resurrections that surround us if we pay attention. These ground the “capital R” Resurrection in our daily experience and somehow make it even more meaningful.

One of the most heartening recent news stories was that of Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who refused administration orders to deport an 11-year old girl without her family. They had fled death threats from the MS-13 gang in El Salvador. She had made all 10 of her appointments with ICE, but due to their clerical error, she was ordered back to El Salvador alone. Understandably, she’s terrified of MS-13 awaiting her return.

Then our hero steps in: Chief Acevedo defied the order. In his own words:

“We have 600,000+ immigrants in this city and ensuring they trust their police department is critical to our mission of keeping our city safe. Messages like yours must be what the German Police were told leading up to the Holocaust. Not this chief, not this Nation, not his time!”

Responding to criticism that he should stay out of politics and simply run his department, the Chief tweeted:

“Yep. The Nazi’s enforced their laws as well. You don’t separate children from their families! Ever! You’d have to kill me to take my child from me simply because I was trying to get them to a better place for a better tomorrow. I am glad to be on the right side of history.”

Although news reports may have distorted the story, and it’s always possible there’s a different angle here, his stance echoes another one in history; Acevedo himself alluded to the Nazi regime. After the Nazis invaded Holland, the ten Boom family began sheltering Jews, resistance for which they paid the price in jail and concentration camps.

Corrie ten Boom’s book THE HIDING PLACE deserves its immense popularity, and one scene in it has particular resonance with the Houston situation, replicated now all over the US. When Corrie begs a pastor to hide a Jewish woman and her two-week old child in his rural, well hidden home, he refuses. “Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”

Then Corrie’s elderly father intervenes, looking into the little face. “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.”

Indeed, he was prophetic. When the family is arrested, the chief interrogator gives the “old man” a chance to return home. His courageous response: “If I go home today, tomorrow I will open my door again to any [one] in need who knocks.” He would die in jail alone, without his beloved family.

How they continue to glow, these divine sparks that empower and blaze forth in human beings. Despite the surrounding gloom, they remind us of Resurrection.

See Kathy Coffey’s article on Columbine in the 4/15/19, 110th anniversary issue of America Magazine. Sadly, nothing significant has changed in gun control during the 20 years since it was first published.

Twenty Years after Columbine

The morning of March 17, I’d sung “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” at Mass; that afternoon I sat between a Jewish friend and a Muslim friend (who wore her green sari in honor of the feast) for prayer at the mosque. We could’ve been the poster girls for the Abrahamic family, or the lead into a joke, but it seemed appropriate to gather and mourn the victims of the Christchurch massacre together. Board members of the Muslim Cultural Center read from the Koran and in a horribly familiar ritual, listed the names of the fifty deceased. The large crowd gasped at the name and photo of a three-year old boy, recently escaped from Somalia to a country his parents must’ve thought safe.

The speakers–a Rabbi, a Sikh, an Episcopal priest and city council members– often mentioned, “we’ve done this before”: for the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the many schools, the church in Charleston.  It was a different perspective to mourn the carnage in another country, but the ache of loss was the same. Mercifully, no one had answers; any explanation would’ve seemed too tidy and pat. The best response seemed to be that of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand prime minister. She wore a black head scarf to mourn at the mosque “because it seemed right,” then, with Parliament’s cooperation, almost immediately banned assault weapons.

Why could such definitive action be impossible in a country which has suffered so much from unrestricted gun violence, and now is seeing the tragic suicides of two Parkland survivors, the father of a Sandy Hook victim? Are citizens who poll consistently in favor of gun control utterly impotent? Sadly, FBI statistics show hate crimes increasing by 30% between 2014 and 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that white nationalist groups surged by almost 50% in 2018.

We cringed in embarrassment, members of a nation which once exported iPhones and Cokes, and now sends international messages of white supremacy and Islamophobia. When President Trump offered Ardern his condolences and asked what help the US could give, she replied, “support for Muslim communities.”

Maybe that’s why we were there. Also to hear Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) describe buying a rug in Islamabad. “How do I know the quality?” he asked the seller. “My wife and I usually buy rugs at Target.” “By the number of knots” came the reply. “The more knots, the higher quality.” So too, Swalwell continued, our society is better the more diverse knots we have, the thicker their texture.

A Muslim speaker ended, “in the name of God Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” reminding us that St. Francis had imported that name from his travels in Egypt. Living in a gun-obsessed and hate-filled society, we came for the challenge to act in accord with the Muslim prayer:

O You Who is Beauty Itself and You Who Love all that is beautiful

Please make my interaction with others beautiful

Please make both my inside and outside beautiful


On April 20, 1999, the Columbine tragedy gave parents their first suspicion that their children might not routinely return from school each day. Twenty years later, I deliver my grandchildren to first grade and preschool with a ritual of kiss, hug, fist bump, high five and whisper, “I love you.” Still, that frisson of fear lingers. Still, the dreaded question: Will this be our last goodbye?

Palm Sunday: Jesus’ Last Gestures

How touching: in his final hours, Jesus’ concern is not with the sin that will pin him to the cross, nor the imminent brutality, but with a last gesture of concern for his friends. Today’s gospel begins with his careful preparations for the Passover meal. His final gifts to the disciples are nurturing bread, inspiriting wine and songs of praise.

One of the most heartbreaking lines in the account of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matthew 26:38). We know how miserably his friends failed him then, but what about ourselves in similar situations? Do we stand with the grieving, those who suffer Christ’s passion today?

As the disciples sleep, Jesus agrees to his Father’s plan, despite what it will cost him. He recognizes, as we should, that God is infinitely wiser than the limited human mind. With any of life’s most challenging passages—marriage, parenthood, a career, dying–we have no idea what we’re getting into. We grow into that awareness. During his passion, Jesus is not a child nor a slave, but a conscious adult, who agrees in love to whatever the Father asks.

This is a good week to take some quiet time and reflect on Jesus’ innocence and willingness. We could ask ourselves the unanswerable question voiced by God at the veneration of the cross on Good Friday, “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”