Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.
Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
The letter arrives on a Friday. Slit and resealed with a sticker, of course, as all their letters are: Inspected for your safety – PACT. It had caused confusion at the post office, the clerk unfolding the paper inside, studying it, passing it up to his supervisor, then the boss. But eventually it had been deemed harmless and sent on its way. No return address, only a New York, NY postmark, six days old. On the outside, his name – Bird – and because of this he knows it is from his mother.
solid, good read:
It’s hard to describe what Our Missing Hearts does and how it makes you feel. The historical events feel so rooted in truth that you start to believe they did happen and that this alternate version of our past and present is real. The Crisis, its aftermath, and the range of reactions (from chosen ignorance to pure hatred) are all present in our own world, particularly following the recent pandemic.
Bird, Ethan, and Margaret are a conventional family that has been pulled apart. Two loving adults forced to deny any affection or knowledge to keep their son in a home he recognises with a parent he knows. An unplanned revolution using words formed in love and birth and motherhood has pushed Margaret down an unexpected path. And Bird is following a scavenger hunt through his memory and his childhood to find answers to questions he didn’t know to ask.
While I was drawn into Bird’s story as he starts to realise that not everything in his small family is as it appears, I started to lose interest in the second part of Our Missing Hearts. Margaret’s narrative starts to feel too much like an information dump to get everyone up to speed rather than an active and engaging story. Thankfully, part three picked up the pace again, making the rest of Our Missing Hearts much more enjoyable.
Working as a thought experiment on how you would act in a world governed by discrimination and as an accusation of how some people choose to act in our current, not-so-dissimilar world – Our Missing Hearts feels important. It may stumble a little in the middle, but it doesn’t distract from a powerful and relevant story.