Let’s talk about the ending to Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng. This is all about spoilers so don’t read this article until you’ve finished the novel.
Welcome to the discussion about Our Missing Hearts! If you’re new to Book Club Chat, I write reviews and book club questions for each novel I read. However, some books deserve a third article—one dedicated to endings. So please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the end of the article.
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts! Some are pretty clear-cut but others are either open to interpretation (like The Maid) or down-right shocking (like Lincoln Highway).
The ending to Our Missing Hearts is rather open-ended, in my opinion.
First, let’s discuss the story as a whole and then we’ll get into the ending. Spoilers from here on out!
We meet twelve-year-old Bird who lives with his father at a university. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, left the family when he was nine years old. Bird’s father does not speak much of Margaret, other than proclaiming she held unpatriotic ideas.
Margaret was a poet and activist—which stands against the PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act) act. PACT is designed to uphold American ideals and anyone who seems unpatriotic, the government will take action. 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.
Bird can’t help and wonder about his mother. When he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. He will embark on a big journey where eventually it will take him to New York City.
Once there, he does meet with his mother again. The novel then takes a shift in tone where Margaret tells Bird about how she got in this position. There’s quite a bit of shocking revelations and unexpected turns in Margaret’s journey.
I thought it was quite interesting that Margaret was an ‘accidental’ activist—she wrote those poems when she was reflecting on motherhood. From her perspective, it was not political at all in nature. They were quiet poems published by a small indie press.
While she was certainly aware of the political turmoil in the country, she thought it was other people’s problems. Even after the brutal murder of her father and her mother’s death from a subsequent heart attack, Margaret’s reaction was to run away from any problems. After all, Margaret was taught to keep her head down and live a quiet existence.
I think it’s easy to initially paint Margaret as, harsh as this sounds, somewhat of a coward (obviously until her last defiant act). But I actually feel that Margaret’s behavior is very common. It strikes a similar tone to the protagonist in The School for Good Mothers—not paying attention to severe laws until it impacts them personally.
However, when Marie, the student protester, reads Margaret’s work—Marie viewed it as giving a voice to both the parents and to their taken children. This changes everything for Margaret for good.
Margaret’s Last Act
While we read Margaret’s retelling of her journey to Bird, she’s putting together something with bottle caps and locating them throughout New York City. Bird even helps her with the endeavor—unaware of the true purpose.
They share some tough scenes and then a truly poignant one where he calls out for her using a word he hasn’t for sometime—mama. Whew, that scene really got to me.
We eventually find out what Margaret’s plan is. She had secretly met with many of the parents of the taken children by PACT and the government. They talked about parenthood and most importantly, their children, who are most likely gone from their lives forever.
Using Domi’s company’s technology, Margaret was able to place a tiny receiver and speaker into the bottle caps throughout the city and connect it all to her laptop. She then used this to broadcast these stories to the people of New York and the greater country as a whole.
Domi told Margaret she did not have to tell these stories live. She could record it and in the meantime, escape with Bird and Ethan. Margaret explains why she had do it live. She was not there when her parents died, they had died alone and she believes she should have been there:
“She could not have articulated this, but she could feel the shape of this wrong inside her, the way she could feel her own heart kettle-drumming in her chest. They had deserved that kind of caretaking and no had given it to them and she would, in this small way, give that solemn witnessing and hand-holding to each of the stories she was about to tell.”
People do hear the stories. And while Margaret has no idea if it will have an impact, she keeps going. But the authorities find her before she is able to escape.
We’re left with snippets of the result of Margaret’s great act. People heard her words and cried. The moment stays with them forever.
But it’s open-ended—did Bird and his father go back to Cambridge? Did Sadie continue to look for her parents?
It’s implied that Margaret is gone forever. Bird makes it his mission to find people who remember her poems to put it back together on paper. There’s a small section that Bird did eventually meet someone who could recite his mother’s story about him.
But did her act have a huge impact? Did it change anything with regards to PACT?
When I finished the story, I felt down, to be honest. Sometimes I like open-ended stories but I feel this one needed a bit more clarification. At first, I didn’t think Margaret act made much of a difference.
But after re-reading the ending a couple of times and thinking it over, I do feel it did serve as a spark to help finally dismantle PACT. However, it might take close to 20 years or so for it finally to turn around.
I believe Bird and Ethan went back to their quiet life in Cambridge. However, it seems that Bird made it his mission to find his mother’s words again. I would have loved for the expansion of that part.
I don’t think Sadie ever found her parents, sadly.
Again, I wish we would have been given a little more hope at the end and not leave it so up to interpretation. I think with everything that went on with this story, I would have loved to have read for sure that Margaret’s act made a different and woke people up to the horrific reality.
In some ways, it almost lends itself to a sequel. I personally would be interested in following Bird as an adult and his initiative to find his mother’s work. And see how the country is like at that time—if anything did indeed change.
Tell Me Your Thoughts
This is how I interpreted the ending to Our Missing Hearts. Agree, disagree and/or have other ideas completely? Be sure to tell me your thoughts below!
Tuesday 10th of January 2023
I run a book club and honestly I like books that are open ended. It allows for great discussions. Readers come up with their own ideas and challenge each other with what might be "holes" in their stories. I enjoyed reading your web page and will be interested in reading others. Now I need a new book to read!
Monday 5th of December 2022
I agree with you completely. I felt the ending was left open to interpretation and could go in several different directions. I also wondered the same as you: do Bird and his dad go back to Cambridge? How does their relationship change/shift now that Bird spent time with his mom and heard her story? Does Domi adopt Sadie and/or help her find her parents? And the big one: what was the aftermath to Margaret's reading through the bottle caps? Did it make front page national news? Were there groups already working to outlaw PACT and Margaret gave them leverage to take their movement to the next level? The other big questions in my mind were: Why did Margaret allow herself to be captured knowing it would mean she might not see Bird for a long time, if ever? And, if Bird knew he wouldn't see his mom again, would he have pushed her to perform the readings as planned? Way too many open story lines for my liking despite the book being excellently written (as Celeste Ng is prone to do) bringing very important current social and political issues into the limelight.