Our Missing Hearts is a contemporary dystopian fiction by Celeste Ng, published in 2022. In a dystopian America, a young boy and his father is separated from his mom as a way to keep him safe. The boy, Noah, aka Bird, is a biracial boy, half Chinese and half white. Although his father tries to protect him, as he gets older, he notices that he is different, that that difference puts him in danger.
Noah misses his mother, Margaret, and doesn’t understand why she had to leave. His deepest desire is to be reunited with her, but he must avoid any mention of her to anyone. His father believes that’s the only way to keep him safe. However, Bird is intent on uncovering all the secrets of his family.
Verdict on Our Missing Hearts
Our Missing Hearts is a poignant, heart-touching story of a mother’s love and sacrifice, friendship, love, family and loss. It shows how democracy can slowly erode and friends and family can become strangers. While set in a fictional world, the fearmongering in the book is reminiscent of some of the current rhetoric about immigrants and foreign countries.
I was captivated by the story, and while the book didn’t end the way I expected it to, in some ways that’s perfect.
In the Author’s note, the following touched me, given that I’m in Prague, as a read this.
Václav Havel’s classic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” changed my thinking about the impact a single individual could have in dismantling a long-established system. I hope he’s right.
A Country Ruled by PACT
PACT is a law that stands for Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. The goal is to protect American ideals and values from those that are un-American, who seek to weaken it. His mother is concerned a traitor and so Bird is judged for his mother’s action. As a result, he is either bullied or pitied every day.
All Sizes of Cats
After his mother left, his father insisted that he use the name Noah instead of Bird. So when a letter arrives addressed to Bird, Noah knows that it’s for him from his mother.
It has been three years since his mother left, and he’s anxious to read the letter. However, there is no text, only cats, and he doesn’t know what it means. What he was sure of was that his mother had a plan.
Bird hid the letter from his father, since his father didn’t keep anything of his mother around. He told Bird to forget her.
Following the Trail
The cat picture reminds Bird of a story that his mother used to tell him, but he can’t remember it.
Bird tried to find the book about the cat, but it had been removed from the library due to PACT. Books are banned if they might cause bad ideas. The explanation is that this is to protect the children. The local librarian was sympathetic to Bird and mentioned that there may be a copy in the university library where his father worked.
One day, Bird stole his father’s access card and used it to sneak into the university library. He managed to find the book he was looking for, but didn’t have time to read it before his father came to find him. His father managed to make an excuse that Bird was looking for him to return his access card and spare Bird from any repercussions.
Small Acts of Resistance
All over the country, people were quietly, anonymously rebelling against PACT using the phrase “our missing hearts”, which was from Margaret’s book of poems.
One day, after seeing a slash of red painted on a street, Bird suddenly remembered the story of the cats. This led him to a cupboard in his old home, where he found a paper with the name Duchess and an address in New York.
Bird maneuvered for his father to leave home before him one day. Then, he got a one way ticket from Cambridge to Manhattan.
When Bird got to New York, he realized that there while some areas had not been repaired after The Crisis, there were still some very affluent people and neighborhoods. Going through Chinatown, saw more people who looked like him, and after seeing a man attack a Chinese woman, he realized that he could be in danger.
Everyone here seems cautious and edgy, scanning the sidewalks and the street, checking over their shoulders. Poised to run. He notices how many, many American flags there are—on nearly every storefront, on the lapels of nearly every person he sees.
When Bird got to the grand house at the address, he met Duchess and convinced her of whom he was. Then she took him to his mother’s location, an abandoned house.
Bird and Margaret had a few days together while she continued preparing for something, although he didn’t know what. She started by telling him her history. Her parents, who emigrated from Kowloon, wanted to blend in after a bomb was set in their mailbox. She was a fetus then, but once she was born, they did everything to assimilate, studying the people around them and following them.
Margaret went to school in New York. Observing the city, she realized they this was a place you could be anything. She had some friends, including duchess, Domi. But when she met Bird’s father, Ethan, at a birthday party for Domi, they clicked. She chased after him, climbing into his room to spend the night. Domi considered her a sell out and stopped talking to her once she and Ethan became a couple.
Then, a crisis started. People lost their job and many couldn’t afford food to eat or places to live. She and Ethan hankered down together. Then, one day, her mother called to tell her father had been attacked in the subway and was dead. Her mother died the next day of a heart attack.
After becoming an orphan, Margaret wanted to flee NY. Through his father’s connections, Ethan got a job at Harvard as an adjunct in the linguistics department, and they quietly left NY two weeks later.
After an assassination attempt of a senator who supported that China was responsible for the crisis, Chinese people were blamed, even though they never found out who attempted the senator’s murder. This incident was the final boost needed to pass PACT.
Margaret was happy in her life with her son and husband, with no thoughts of resistance. She watched protests, the police response and the journalists’ portrayals on TV. But then, her poetry and herself were considered un-American. Her publisher was told to get rid of all her books and further harassed until he had no choice but to close down. Margaret and Ethan got nonstop calls and threats, with people dropping items on their front door like dog shit and even a single bullet. When the bullet appeared, Bird was no longer allowed outside.
Once people found out she had a child, they started posting comments and staring opinions that he needed to be removed from her influence.
Then, Ethan’s parents seemed to believe the news and distanced themselves from Ethan and his family. Finally, Bird’s teacher sent a note to warn them that she was going to be interviewed by Family Services. At that point, Ethan and Margaret decided that she would leave, cutting off all ties with Ethan and Bird to protect them. When Family Services came to visit, Ethan said all the right things to keep his son with him.
When Margaret left, her first stop was to visit the parents of Marie, one of the protesters who had been killed by the authorities. Her first stop was to visit Marie’s parents, to explain, atone. Marie Johnson was the first one to use a line from Margaret’s poetry in protesting PACT, and was killed as a result. Marie’s father asked her why she’d come, suggesting there was nothing for her at their home. The mother lingered, asked if she had children before empathizing at her loss. The mother invited her in and told her about Marie so that someone else would know her, remember her. On the second day, her father joined and told his own stories, how he hadn’t wanted her to get involved but she did anyway.
Since she left Cambridge, Margaret had been collecting stories of all the families that were separated by PACT, of the children that were taken away. By talking from person to person, Margaret realized how pernicious PACT was, how the authorities had gradually eroded the previous way of living. She got connected to affected families through a network of librarians who were sympathetic to the families separated by PACT.
Margaret carried notebooks with the stories of the families she visited. She told Bird that she hadn’t chosen to be part of the resistance to PACT but she felt compelled to. When people started using phrases from her poems, that automatically made her a target and she had no choice but to hide. She left him to keep him and his father safe (from people who would come after her).
Margaret had taken the same path Bird would follow years later to get to Duchess – Domi. She had found Duchess on the news after she made a large donation to the New York Public Libary.
One day, a librarian toke her about Sadie, and Margaret was able to meet her. She learned about Bird and connected Sadie to Duchess for somewhere to live.
A Final Love Letter
Finally, the day arrived for Margaret’s big plan. She wants to stop, to change her mind, but Bird calla her a hypocrite. Even though he doesn’t know exactly what she’s planned, he had watched her put together something using bottlecaps and distributed some. ofthem with her.
That day, duchess picked up Noah and took him out of town to a cabin with his friend, Sadie, a girl he had met at school before she ran away to look for her mother. Sadie hadn’t found her mother yet, but was staying with duchess in the meantime.
As Margaret connects her computer to the Internet and starts to speak, the speakers she has hidden all over the city come to life. People stop in their tracks to listen, some of the crying, as she tells the stories of separated families.
Margaret has a plan to escape and meet Domi before it is too late, but she miscalculates. By the time she hears several cars arrive outside, there are many more stories to read, but she is out of time. She realizes she won’t be able to keep her promise to Bird.
Although she knows her time is up, Margaret reads one more story, this one from the heart. She reads the last story, her story, Bird’s, before she smashes the laptop and the authorities badge in.
Bird and Sadie wait for two days with no news, worried about what might have happened. Then, the duchess and Ethan come to pick them up.
THE ENDING of Our Missing Hearts
Even though Bird doesn’t get a copy of Margaret’s books, he gets to hear her words, recited first by Domi, and then by others.
And someday he will hear: one day, he will meet someone who, on hearing his story, will say slowly, I remember that, I was there, I’ll never forget—who will recite it for him, the very last bit of his mother’s broadcast, the one story she did not read but spoke, directly, in her own words, will recite it nearly word for word because it has been rooted inside them ever since they heard it, all those years ago, that night when out of nowhere, out of everywhere, a voice began to speak into the darkness, carrying messages of love.
After Domi offers to write what she remembers of one of Margaret’s poem for him, he realizes how he will keep his mother alive, how he will meet her again.
And he understands, then, how it’s going to go. How he’ll find her again. What he’s going to do next, alongside everything else his life will bring. Somewhere out there are people who still know her poems, who’ve hidden scraps of them away in the folds of their minds before setting match to the papers in their hands. He will find them, he will ask them what they remember, he will piece together their recollections, fragmentary and incomplete though they may be, mapping the holes of one against the solid patches of another, and in this way, piece by piece, he will set her back down on paper again.
And so the last thing Bird says, is yes. He answers Domi that yes, he wants her to write what she remembers of Margaret’s poem for him:
Yes, please, he says. I would like that, very much.
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