Big Brother Rides Again in Celeste Ng’s New Novel

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, Penguin Press, 2022

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read—and one of the most frightening. In this dystopian novel, which takes place sometime after The Crisis, which made the Great Depression look like nothing, the country is ruled by PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. If you say anything against the government, the country, or the American culture, you are deemed a criminal. Books are banned and destroyed, mail is censored, and people’s children are taken away because of unpatriotic things their parents are rumored to have said or done.

Things are especially difficult if you happen to be a PAO, person of Asian origin. Our hero Bird’s father is white, but his mother is Chinese. Bird looks Chinese. The other kids pick on him, and adults don’t trust him. Worse, his mom, Margaret Miu, is a poet and one of her lines, “our missing hearts,” has been taken up as a slogan for the resistance movement. In this time of patriotism gone berserk, Bird’s family is in danger and his mother disappears. He is told that his name is now Noah and he should say he knows nothing about his mother. But he can’t let her go. He has to find her. The story that follows is mind-blowing and heart-breaking. It is a poem in itself and a lesson about what could happen. This book should be required reading for everyone.

In the world of PACT, Our Missing Hearts would be one of the many books destroyed as unpatriotic. In that world, the library shelves are half empty. Anything that might fill people’s minds with anti-PACT ideas has been removed. In 2022 America, we have not reached that point, but some books are already banned as inappropriate for young minds. See the Pen America list below. How big a leap is it to the book-burnings of George Orwell’s 1984? Not so big, I’m afraid. I suspect there are ways to take away all of our electronic books, too.

Like so many poets, fictional poet Margaret Miu just wanted to write her poems. She didn’t expect to sell many copies of her book, and she wouldn’t have if the protestors hadn’t taken up that one line, printing it on posters, painting it on streets and buildings, and hanging it on trees. Fearing for her family’s safety, Margaret’s family is torn apart. All because of a line in a poem that was not intended to be a political statement.

Think about it. Even in our society today, one statement can get people in hot water. People get fired, their reputations are ruined, they are shunned. It’s illegal to kill people or take away their children just because of what their parents say or write, but it’s not impossible. Add to that bias against certain ethnic groups, in this case Chinese or anyone who looks Chinese, and it could happen.

Ng notes in her Afterward that children have been taken from their parents in the US before. Slave children were separated from their parents and sold. Native American youth were sent off to boarding schools to be Americanized. Not long ago, children were taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Look at the Japanese internment camps. It has happened, and it could happen again. That’s what’s makes this book so frightening, especially if the person reading it is a poet or any kind of writer. What if our words come to be used against us? What if these words I’m typing right now are seen as disloyal to my country? It’s a chilling thought.

Beyond that, Our Missing Hearts is a fabulous book, suspenseful, beautifully written, and so original in the nonviolent ways the resistors find to fight the national brainwashing. We all need to tell our stories, whether everyone agrees with them or not.

Have you read Our Missing Hearts? I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Pen America’s list of most frequently banned books:

  • Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (41 districts)
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (29 districts)
  • Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez (24 districts)
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (22 districts)
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (17 districts)
  • Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison (17 districts)
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (16 districts)
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (14 districts)
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins (12 districts)
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (12 districts)
  • l8r, g8r by Lauren Myracle (12 districts)
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (12 districts)
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (11 districts)
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (11 districts)
  • Drama: A Graphic Novel by Raina Telgemeier (11 districts)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green (11 districts)
  • Melissa by Alex Gino (11 districts)
  • This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson (11 districts)
  • This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (11 districts)
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