A Book that Strikes Fear in the Heart…
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Noah Gardner is a twelve-year-old boy who receives a letter from his mother in the book’s opening pages. It contains no words. Instead, it is a whole sheet of paper covered edge to edge with drawings of cats no bigger than a dime. He knows it’s from his mother because it is addressed to him as “Bird,” which is his preferred name, a nickname he used to go by before everything happened. And a lot has happened.
Of most importance to Bird is the fact that his mother disappeared three years ago. After his mom left, there was a new apartment, a new school, and a new job for his father. Basically, an entirely new life. This all sounds grander than it was. The dad, Ethan, used to be a linguistics professor. Now he works in the college library keeping records and shelving books. This is odd because the library is short on books thanks to so many having been banned. As part of his pay, Ethan has a dorm room in which he and his son live. They take all their meals in the dining hall.
But even before Bird’s mom left them, a lot had happened in the whole of the United States, not just in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the book is set. More than a decade ago, people in the U.S. had endured a turbulent time referred to as “the Crisis.” During that time, many were out of work. Factories had gone idle. There were shortages of everything. Mobs looted stores, rioted in the streets, and lit whole neighborhoods ablaze. The nation was paralyzed in the turmoil.
To end the Crisis and keep the country safe, a law called PACT was enacted. This is an acronym for the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. As the novel begins, it had been the law of the land for a decade.
There were three pillars to PACT. It outlawed the promotion of un-American values and behavior. It required all citizen to report potential threats to society. And it protected children from environments espousing harmful views.
I should mention that at this fictional time in the United States, the economy in China was booming, so China became the scapegoat for all of America’s problems. A term popped up – PAO – Persons of Asian Origin. Supposedly, being a PAO was not a crime. PACT was supposedly not about race, it was about patriotism and mindset. But of course, the reader can see where this is going and the reader can start to worry because Bird’s mother, Margaret Miu, is Chinese-American. Thus, both she and Bird are PAOs.
Thrown into this mix is a girl Bird befriends at school, a fellow outcast, Sadie. Her mom was Black and her dad was white, but they had been protesters trying to overturn PACT. When they were labeled as Chinese sympathizers, Sadie was taken from their home and “re-placed” in foster care.
About this time, weird “stunts” start to take place, all of them anonymous, all aimed at PACT. In Memphis, ski-masked figures emptied a dump truck of ping pong balls into the river and fled. A miniature red heart was drawn on each and contained the words, END PACT. In New York, there was a banner spanning the Brooklyn Bridge with a blood-red heart and the words, FUCK PACT.
And then Bird sees one such demonstration/art installation (guerilla art) up close and personal. Spray painted on the ground was a heart like the one on the Brooklyn Bridge banner. Circling it was a ring of words, BRING BACK OUR MISSING HEARTS. These words soon became a rallying cry at anti-PACT riots across the nation.
It is Sadie who tells Bird that his mother, Margaret Miu, is a famous poet. If people don’t know her name, they know the name of a book of poems she published. It is called, Our Missing Hearts. Sadie has found a two-year old newspaper with a headline that says, “Local Poet Tied to Insurrections.” Sadie contends that Margaret is alive and “out there” somewhere, organizing protests, fighting PACT, working to overturn it, and working to bring kids like Sadie back home to their parents.
Soon, echoes of Margaret’s phrase are popping up all over. Don’t Forget Our Missing Hearts. Where are Our Missing Hearts? At that point, Bird takes off to find his mom. As he meets people throughout his hero’s journey, the whole love story of Ethan and Margaret gets told, we learn of the economic conditions that caused the Crisis, and we learn the history of Margaret’s “involvement” in the anti-PACT movement.
Having just lived through a Crisis that we call the pandemic, it is easy to see how fragile and volatile a nation’s politics can become. Thus, the book can strike a little fear in the heart.
Suffice it to say there is a lot of food for thought here. Important topics are emphasized even more by the author’s notes at the book’s end. She reminds us that the pandemic brought a sharp increase in anti-Asian discrimination. She also tells us that there is a long history in the U.S. and elsewhere of removing children from homes as a means of political control. (Separating migrant parents and their children at the border is the newest example.) And most important is her statement that there is a blurry overlap between resisting, tolerating, and colluding with those in power at troubled times.
Like I said, there is a lot of food for thought in this terrific book, but it can strike a little fear in the heart…
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