Our Missing Hearts

Ng, Celeste

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Mar-21-2023
  • Last revised: Mar-21-2023


Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is set in the not-too-distant future, in the wake of the Crisis that has ineradicably altered American society. After several years of steadily worsening economic downturn and hardship, there is slowly escalating social unrest. Random political violence erupts across the country. A protester is killed and public opinion is inflamed. In the press and social media, China is blamed for the turmoil. This unleashes a wave of discrimination and persecution of Asian Americans. Emergency laws are passed to restore order and to penalize Asian Americans and their sympathizers for purported anti-American behavior. A punitive program is implemented to remove children from parents who are viewed as enemies, real or potential, to the state.

The story centers on a precocious 12-year-old boy, Bird Gardner.  His mother, Margaret Miu, of Chinese ancestry, is a  little known poet who wrote a slim volume of poems several years before the  social fabric began to fray. Without her knowledge, one of the poems, “Our Missing Hearts”, has been adopted as a literary slogan by an underground anti-government resistance movement She is targeted by anti-Asian extremists and harassed by law enforcement. Rather than have her son “replaced,” the government euphemism for removing children from families deemed disloyal and putting them into foster care, she makes the wrenching decision to abandon him and the husband she loves dearly and goes into hiding for three lonely years. She is haunted by the pain of all the removed children and devises an act of protest. It is modeled on  the public works created by current Chinese artists using gunpowder and other unusual materials. Her goal is to increase awareness and hopefully termination of the “replacement” program. Her hope is to trigger mass protest and the return of the removed children to their grieving families. The narrative moves inexorably to an unbearably sad ending.


The book evokes Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America in its political portents. But it is not nearly as matter of fact.  While it builds on current events, it invents its own future.  So, unlike Roth’s novel, Our Missing Hearts is a prophetic work, foretelling a dystopic America. The story unfolds with emotional force and clarity, and it has the solemnity of the Bible.  Its structure and tone is reminiscent Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible. a novel about climate disaster that was nominated for the National Book Award in 2020.

At times the characters strain credibility with their almost super-human endurance and sensitivity. Bird is more perceptive than adults 20 years his senior, and his conversation is always ominous and serious. In response to obscure clues that Bird receives in a letter from his mother, the 12-year-old boy is able to keep his plan secret from his father and travels alone by bus from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York City. He arrives at the crowded Port Authority bus terminal and then navigates the streets of Manhattan on foot to find his reclusive mother in her hideout. Interestingly, the politically activist but absent mother in Our Missing Hearts is a motif that is a prominent feature in another currently popular book, Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez.  In that book, the mother abandons her son and daughter in Sunset Park Queens to lead a revolutionary movement for Puerto Rican independence.

In the final analysis, Ng’s book does not succeed or fail based on the credibility of the plot details or the specific actions of the characters. Ng has written an austere mythic tale that is propelled by a journey of self-discovery and that brings to life the conflict between the individual and the State when values collide. Our Missing Hearts is meant to alert us to the social and moral conflicts that loom in our future and the threats they pose to each of us unless we confront how we define ourselves and the Other and how we can coexist peacefully with that Other. The human costs are profound. But what amplified the message for me was reading this book at nearly the same time as Dinaw Mengetsu’s All Our Names.They both vividly portray the profound human cost of social conflict and how the deep bond of love is sacrificed in “war” zones.