Bird Gardner has only fading memories of his mother, who left him and his father three years earlier. They never speak of her or acknowledge that she was ever in their lives but instead do their best to go unnoticed in Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng.
Bird and his father, a former linguist who now shelves books in the Harvard University library, have been living under oppressive laws that were written to create stability after America has gone through years of economic crisis and violence. Authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents – especially those of Asian origin – and libraries have been forced to remove books that seem unpatriotic. People are encouraged to spy on each other and the accused are often considered guilty until proven (if ever) innocent.
Bird’s mother, Margaret, is a Chinese American poet. One of her poems has been used by protest groups even though that was not the intention of the poem. Nevertheless, she is considered a dissident and her books are destroyed. Margaret flees to protect her son and husband, going underground and joining the groups who are fighting the oppressive laws.
One day Bird receives a mysterious note with nothing but the drawing of a cat. He goes in search of answers and slowly puts together the puzzle, finding many others along the way that are, each in their own way, fighting back. (I’m happy to say that librarians play a key role in this underground network!)
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking book that covers a range of emotions – anger and frustration but also kindness and love. The fight against hopelessness and impossible odds adds suspense yet there are glimmers of hope. Although it is sometimes hard to read – the story is a little to close to some of the issues we face today – I highly recommend it.