We know who caused all this people were beginning to say. Ask yourself who’s doing well because we’re on the decline, fingers pointed firmly east, look how China’s GDP was rising their standard of living climbing, Over there you’ve got Chinese rice farmers with smartphones one congressman ranted on the house floor, over here in the US of A you got Americans using buckets for toilets because their water’s turned off for non payment. Tell me how that’s not backwards, just tell me.
Celeste Ng brings us a dystopian novel of a society turned inward on itself following a terrible depression and riots, The USA. The first step is to identify a scapegoat, China as illustrated in the opening paragraph. The second step is to create “entirely justifiable laws” to protect all Americans from un American ideas, PACT:
PACT “Preserving American Culture and Traditions”, a solemn promise to root out any anti-American elements undermining the nation…..Investing in America, funding for new initiatives to monitor China, and new watchdog groups to sniff out those who’s loyalties might be divided, rewards for citizen vigilance, information leading to potential troublemakers and finally, most crucially, preventing the spread of un-American views quietly removing children from un-American environments, the definition of which was ever expanding.
And the third step is then as described above, to remove children from homes considered anti PACT, often by denunciation .
Celeste No tells us this story through the eyes of Bird Gardner, a third generation descendant of Chinese immigrants. Bird is brought up by his father, not to make waves, to avoid trouble. We soon learn that his mother, an insignificant Chinese American Poet left him and his father one day without saying goodbye when he was nine years old. One day, Bird who has no friends at school meets a new pupil, Sadie, who lives with foster parents and who has moved several times, Sadie had, for a school assignment chosen to investigate families who’s children dad been taken under PACT and was soon after, herself, placed with foster parents and no longer knew where her own parents were.
We slowly learn that Bird’s mother left home to protect Bird after a piece of wild chance, a PACT protestor was killed and the photograph taken of her showed her with a copy of Margaret Miu’s poem Our Missing Hearts, the protestors begin using this phrase to represent resistance to PACT, and so Margaret Miu quickly becomes an enemy, a wanted person. We then learn the story of Margaret, whose own parents had tried to not make waves:
PACT was decades away but her parents felt it already, the eyes of the neighbourhood scrutinising their every move. Blending in they decided was their best option. So after she was born they dresses her in pink corduroy overalls and Mary Janes, tied ribbons in her pig tailed hair. When she got older they would buy her clothes off of the headless mannequin at the department store. Anything it wore she wore. Surreptitiously they studied the neighbourhood children and bought Margaret what they saw, Barbies, a Dream House, a cabbage Patch kid named Susana Marigold, a pink bike with white streamer handles, a toy oven that baked brownies by the light of a bulb: suburban camouflage from the Sears’ catalogue. Her father saying the stick hits the bird who holds its head the highest.
As one day Bird finds a hidden message and runs away to find his mother, she is preparing an audacious action to ensure that the taken children should not be forgotten.
First published in English by Penguin Press in 2022