Unbreakable Bonds in Two Dystopian Worlds

I don’t typically read dystopian novels. Too dark for me. The very meaning of dystopia warns me away. It is an imaginary place in which everything is as bad as possible (Oxford dictionary). In the dystopian fiction world, societies are generally characterized by class divides, environmental devastation, and loss of individuality. Set in a near future, they are allegories to generate a sense of urgency to change our ways.

Today is my first foray into this world. I read two dystopian novels this week set in an imaginable future that described a degraded world for all of us, but Asian Americans in particular. As the Chinese New Year began, with its horrific violence, it seemed fitting to immerse myself in these worlds. We have a long history of Asian American discrimination in our country, now exacerbated by the pandemic. Both books have Asian American protagonists.

Penguin 2022

Simon & Schuster 2022

I found Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng to be extraordinary on many levels despite its darkness. The world created, the complicated characters, the story arc, the threads of humanity woven into the unthinkable made it worth reading.

I had real issues, however, with Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. Having said that, for more devoted readers of this genre, it might be a good choice.

Celeste Ng is a favorite of mine. When I saw she wrote a new novel, I knew I wanted to read it. Given the nature of her earlier books, Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere, I was caught by surprise, not expecting a book set sometime in the near future. But given the undercurrents in her other books, I should not have been surprised.

The Crisis, an expanded version of the pandemic, has changed everything—the economy and social norms has extended the reach of government into private lives. Congress passed PACT (The Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act). This law’s purpose is to preserve American culture and to restore prosperity. The extent of its authority is egregious. Among the many new rules, children of dissidents and parents who supposedly are not raising their children in line with PACT, especially those of Asian origin can be re-located (taken away). Libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic.They are recycled into toilet paper.

Celeste Ng, author

As the book opens, twelve year old, Noah ‘Bird’ Gardner lives in a college dorm with his white father, Ethan, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. They live a life wary of their neighbors and surroundings. Bird’s mother, Margaret, left home three years earlier. She is a Chinese American poet whose work was labeled unpatriotic after a phrase from a poem was used in a protest. A young Black girl, shot dead at an anti-PACT rally, carried a sign emblazoned with Margaret’s line: “our missing hearts.”

A loving and devoted mother, Margaret is afraid their son will be taken. To keep him safe with his father, she disappears.

His father is fearful and protective. Bird doesn’t know what has happened to his mother, doesn’t know her poems, and tries not to think about her. He has only one friend at school before she, too, goes missing. Sadie is biracial and was taken from her parents who were undesirable journalists. She runs away from her many foster homes in search of her parents.

When Bird receives a mysterious letter containing a small drawing, he knows it’s from his mother. Compelled to find her, his journey takes him through an underground network of librarians who try to find children who have been taken, and finally to his mother who is planning an act of defiance.

The writing is elegant. It makes the power of the story radiate. As art itself, it centers on the ability of art to create change. Above that, but perhaps more important, it is about the unbreakable bond of a mother and child. It makes us realize that it may be possible to survive terrible circumstances if we have love to sustain us.

The plot of The School for Good Mothers launches from a single act of poor, potentially dangerous judgment by an emotionally damaged Chinese American woman.

Frida Liu, having suffered from depression for many years, is still in the throes of her post partum depression. She suffers low self esteem, not having lived up to the sacrifices made by her parents and from intense insecurity. Chinese-American, she is married to a white man who begins an affair while she was still pregnant and leaves her when the baby is a few months old. He now lives with this new woman who has stepped in a substitute mother.  

Sleep deprived because the baby is sick, under pressure to meet a work deadline, disheveled, and disoriented, she leaves her baby alone for two hours while she gets a coffee and stops at her office to pick up a file. She loses time and while she is gone an anonymous caller alerts the authorities.

It is a tragic misjudgment that changes the course of her life.

Jessamine Chan

It is set sometime in the future. Harsh as the system we now have for taking children from their parents into foster care, it pales by its replacement. Anonymous tips have weight. A lost moment in a park, a fall off a bike, an everyday distraction caught by an outsider can set permanent separations of mother and child in motion.

Frida must attend a one year residential program to ‘learn how to be a good mother,’ if she wants to keep her parental rights.

The school program is a nightmare. All the racial bias and cultural tropes are firmly in place.   It stereotypes racial inequities and plays with the reader’s reactions. If the outcomes were successful, it would set mothers’ lives back decades. The hoops the resident mothers have to go through are impossible. 

The staff act as if they are programmed by computers.The mothers spend the year caring devotedly for an AI doll who replaces their real child. The staff undermine the mothers, provide no positive support, and punish them and the children they have taken from them by interrupting communication. The outcome of the various levels of training determine whether or not custody will be permanently terminated.

The reader is dragged through the entirety of the levels they must pass ad nauseum. An unexpected ending, which I won’t reveal, is an attempt at empowerment that fell short.  

Perhaps, I have missed the fact this is a good example of a dystopian novel. Dark, unreasonable, unrelenting in its cruelty. As in the definition, it exploited all our darker leanings. I much preferred the pinpricks of humanity shown in Ng’s novel.

To read two such different books in an unfamiliar genre at the same time was eye opening. I don’t know if I’ll read others, but these will stick with me.

There were similarities that can’t be ignored. Both were about motherhood. Both were about love in a world rife with hate. Both authors have undoubtedly done their due diligence and researched their material.

The differences were that one was a story, tragic but feeling true and hopeful with a beautifully written ending. The other, too heavy handed. And although Frida did grow, the consistent lack of empathy toward her was stunning.

Good wishes to all who celebrate the lunar new year. It is the year of the rabbit, a symbol of intellect and caution. It signifies introspection, reflection and thoughtfulness in being and in action. Given the state of violence and hatred of others in our midst, we would all do well to heed this.

Happy Reading!

Available through this website, Amazon, IngramSparks and your local bookseller

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