Celeste Ng’s 2022 novel, “Our Missing Hearts” is a tale where librarians, storytellers, and readers emerge as unsung heroes, safeguarding truth against oppressive forces.
Set against a dystopian backdrop, the story delves into themes of racism, identity, and resistance in a post-pandemic America. Central to the narrative are Bird and Margaret, a son and mother duo, embroiled in a society that targets their Asian heritage.
In a future America, the PACT law (Preserving American Culture and Traditions) reigns, targeting “un-American” activities and thoughts, especially in the wake of a war with China.
Bird, an Asian American boy in Cambridge, grapples with his mother Margaret’s disappearance. She, a Chinese American poet, goes underground to defy PACT. Bird’s father, a former linguistics professor, now relegated to filing books, represents the subdued opposition.
The story kicks off with Bird receiving a cryptic message from Margaret, leading him on a quest to locate a specific Japanese storybook linked to his childhood. Amidst this, anti-PACT protests escalate, and Bird is haunted by his mother’s absence and the racial dangers he faces.
As Bird uncovers clues left by Margaret, he navigates through a network of librarians and underground activists.
His journey to New York City becomes a pivotal moment of self-discovery and confrontation with the harsh realities of racial discrimination. In New York, he reunites with his mother, who has been engaged in a covert project to highlight the stories of separated families.
Margaret’s rebellion, centered around broadcasting these stories through hidden speakers in bottle caps, aims to evoke empathy and awareness. However, her plan ends in her capture.
Meanwhile, Bird, along with Sadie, a friend connected to his mother’s cause, finds temporary safety in Connecticut.
The 11-year-old biracial protagonist, Bird, originally named Noah, yearns for the freedom and understanding that his nickname suggests.
Living under the shadow of his mother’s absence and the societal pressures of being Asian American in a xenophobic America, Bird embarks on a quest that is both physical and emotional.
His journey reveals not just the external world of anti-PACT activism but also his inner world of empathy, innocence, and a deep longing for familial connection.
As Bird matures through his experiences, he becomes a symbol of hope and potential for a more accepting future.
Bird’s mother, Margaret, is a poet turned reluctant activist, whose work inadvertently becomes a rallying cry against the oppressive PACT law. Her character arc from a mother and poet to a symbol of resistance is a compelling tale of sacrifice and courage.
Margaret’s decision to leave her family to protect them is a testament to her strength and commitment to a greater cause. Her actions, culminating in a daring public act of defiance, leave an indelible mark on society and her son’s life.
Domi (The Duchess)
A college friend of Margaret’s, Domi is an intriguing blend of privilege and activism. Rejecting her wealthy background initially, she eventually harnesses it to support the underground librarian movement.
Her commitment is unwavering, offering sanctuary and resources to those fighting against PACT. Domi’s character challenges conventional notions of wealth and power, showing how privilege can be used for societal good.
At 12 years old, Sadie’s life is already marked by the harsh realities of PACT’s family separation policies. She embodies resilience and the pursuit of truth, playing a crucial role in Bird’s awakening to his mother’s legacy.
Her friendship with Bird brings a sense of normalcy and childhood innocence to his life, even as they navigate the complexities of their families’ pasts. Sadie’s story is a poignant reminder of the personal toll of political oppression.
Bird’s father, Ethan, stands as a contrast to Margaret’s public defiance. As a white man, he navigates the oppressive society with more ease but chooses to live a subdued life to keep Bird safe.
His love for languages and words becomes a subtle form of resistance in a world where language is policed. Ethan’s journey is one of quiet strength and love, underscored by the sacrifices he makes for his son’s safety and well-being.
1. The Impact of Authoritarianism on Personal Freedom and Identity
Central to the narrative is the exploration of how authoritarian policies, symbolized by the PACT law, infringe upon individual freedoms and identity.
Ng delves into the psychological and societal repercussions of living under a regime that aggressively polices cultural expression and thought. This theme is poignantly personified through Bird’s journey, showcasing his struggle to understand his identity in a world that actively suppresses his cultural heritage.
The law’s impact on his family – his mother’s forced disappearance and his father’s subdued existence – further highlights the devastating effect such governance has on personal lives and relationships.
2. Racism and Xenophobia in Crisis Situations
The novel astutely addresses the surge of racism and xenophobia that emerges in the face of national crises.
Set in a post-pandemic America, Ng’s narrative mirrors real-world events where fear and uncertainty often lead to the scapegoating of certain groups.
The Asian American experience under the PACT law, including hate crimes and racial slurs, is a powerful commentary on how societal anxieties can manifest as targeted racial discrimination.
This theme is not just a backdrop but a significant driver of the plot, influencing Bird’s interactions, decisions, and the overall trajectory of his journey to find his mother.
3. The Power of Storytelling and Art as Resistance
A more hopeful yet profound theme in the novel is the celebration of storytelling and art as tools of resistance and truth-telling.
Margaret’s poetry becomes a symbol of defiance against an oppressive regime, illustrating how art can inspire and mobilize people. The role of librarians and secret networks in preserving and disseminating forbidden stories underscores the idea that knowledge and narratives are vital in maintaining cultural identity and history, especially in times of repression.
Bird’s quest, driven by the hidden messages in stories and books, encapsulates the power of storytelling in uncovering truths and connecting people, making it a vital theme that resonates throughout the novel.
“Our Missing Hearts” is a compelling and thought-provoking novel that skillfully blends elements of dystopian fiction with poignant social commentary.
The story’s exploration of themes such as racism, family, and the power of storytelling is both timely and timeless. Ng’s nuanced portrayal of a society grappling with its own identity and values, mirrored through the personal journey of Bird and his mother, makes for an emotionally resonant and intellectually stimulating read.