Sunday, August 18, 2019

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. However, this one was an exception, because this was my nomination. 

Little Fires Everywhere takes on some pretty complex, tricky, and controversial topics. It does so through some morally difficult - and realistic - situations faced by nuanced characters. The writing is also excellent, the plot tight and focused, and the pacing perfect. Despite the heavier themes, it doesn’t feel like a heavy book. It is literary fiction, but doesn’t feel Literary™. 

I should warn that in order to say what I want to about the book, I will have to give some spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you might want to bookmark this page, and come back to it after you have read it. 

Before getting into the story itself, let me say a few things about the setting. Ng chose one of the most fascinating places in America to set her story: Shaker Heights, Ohio. This suburb of Cleveland was one of the first “planned communities” in the US, long before such things became the hackneyed “gated community” dystopias that dominate the middle class suburbs and exburbs surrounding most major cities. 

Shaker Heights was, at the time, a legitimately inspirational idea. It was connected to Cleveland by streetcar, making commuting easy in an era before cars became dominant. It was laid out so that children could walk to schools, parks, and grocery stores without crossing any major streets. Indeed, even today, children usually walk, rather than take a bus or car. Although Shaker Heights now is mostly home to well above median income people, it was designed to have mixed income housing. (Essentially, it is a victim of its own success. Even the apartments are desirable, while the large houses are out-of-sight expensive.) 

Later, Shaker Heights would become famous for its intentional and successful efforts to integrate - decades before the Civil Rights Act. This included not just being open to non-whites moving in, but recruiting middle-class minorities, and assisting in securing financing in an era of redlining and open discrimination - it still maintains its own housing assistance office. As a result, Shaker Heights is a fairly integrated and diverse city, and avoided the “white flight” so many places have experienced. It still has a reputation as a progressive and tolerant place to live - although it isn’t particularly affordable these days, alas. 

Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, so one might guess that she knows a thing or three about the experience. As she said about it, it was “a little bit like writing about a relative. You see all of the great things about them, you love them dearly, and yet you also know all of their quirks and their foibles.” 

Shaker Heights serves as a bit of a metaphor as well as the setting. As a carefully planned community, it parallels the life of Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the picture-perfect Richardson family. Upper middle class, progressive, and concerned with their image, the Richardsons are recognizable. They are basically decent people, who try to do the right thing. Always. Always the perfect thing. Particularly Elena, as her husband Bill is a prominent attorney, and works the sort of hours that go with that kind of job. There are four Richardson children. Lexie is the all-American girl, progressive style. She has an African-American boyfriend who is smart and intends to go far, killer looks, and a personality that makes her popular. Likewise, Trip is the handsome, blond athletic sort, who has scored with most of the girls in the school. Moody is the thoughtful and kind one, who is a bit hapless in relationships - largely because of the competition from his older siblings. Izzy is the odd kid out, misunderstood, strong willed, deeply moral, and uninterested in the middle-class facade. 

Into the lives of the Richardsons come Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. Mia is an itinerant artist with a mysterious past. Pearl has never known stability, moving regularly, never making friends or putting down roots. When Mia rents an apartment from the Richardsons, Moody comes over to check things out and meets Pearl. He introduces her to the rest of the family, and Pearl finds herself wanting to be part of that world. 

On the other hand, Elena recognizes something in Mia that troubles her. Elena has always done the perfect thing. But that meant, in her circumstances, never following her own dreams. She grew up in Shaker Heights, went to college, met and married Bill, and brought him back to live in her hometown. This means sacrifices. Elena writes for the local-local paper. You know, the one that covers school plays and local sports and stuff. She never breaks into the big leagues - in part because of the demands of family. By the time the story opens, she knows deep down that she will never be more than she is. Not really. The perfect life, but not her career dreams. 

Mia, on the other hand, is a complete contrast. Although she never finished her degree, Mia is an artistic photographer who has followed her own path. She works menial jobs as necessary to pay the rent, plus sells a few of her photos through a New York art dealer. Just enough to get by. Everything Mia and Pearl own is second-hand, from the ancient car Mia inherited (more or less) from her late brother, to the thrift-shop clothes and discarded furniture they find whenever they more to a new place. Despite the poverty, Mia and Pearl have a close relationship, and Mia gets to live life essentially on her own terms. 

This isn’t the life Pearl would choose, however, and she wants to put down roots and build relationships. What she does have, unlike the Richardson kids, though, is a truly good relationship with her mother. (She has no idea who her dad is - that topic is essentially off the table.) 

Into this already complex situation comes a serious disruption. Mia’s coworker at a local restaurant, Chinese immigrant Bebe, has been through a horrible experience. After being impregnated, then abandoned, she loses her job and her housing in short order, and finds she can’t get enough food to keep the infant alive. She abandons her (carefully) at a fire station, but later regrets it after she is able to get on her feet again. By coincidence, Mia overhears Elena talking about her childhood friend, who is in the process of adopting an infant that must be Bebe’s daughter. Bebe challenges the adoption, and the court case roils Shaker Heights. 

Furious that her friend is going through this, Elena starts investigating Mia’s past, and makes some unexpected discoveries. The aftermath of all this includes the title of the book, when Izzy burns the family home to the ground and runs away. 

The crux of the discovery about Mia is this (spoiler alert): When in college as an art major, Mia’s scholarship is cut off due to budget cuts. Lacking support from her family, she agrees to be a surrogate for a wealthy infertile couple, using her own egg and his sperm. When she reveals this to her family, they express their strong disapproval. After her brother dies in a car crash, she realizes she can’t go through with the surrogacy, tells the couple that she miscarried, and flees to the West Coast. From there on out, she has been on the run from her past. 

These two cases - the adoption and the surrogacy - bring to light some unpleasant truths about our society. 

First, some of my own background. For the last 16 years, I have done contract work for an Indian Tribe, handling their California “juvenile dependency” cases. That is a fancy legalese term for cases where a child is removed from its parents for alleged abuse or neglect. If the parents fail to “reunify” successfully, the child will probably be adopted. Because of my work in these cases, I have seen the system up close, and, I will admit, I have some deeply conflicted feelings about the whole thing. 

In general, the system seems to do a better job of splitting up families than keeping them together, and there is a strong economic and racial disparity in which families stay together. Certainly, there are cases in which there is no reasonable way for parents and children to be reunified. Some parents have issues with mental illness and/or substance abuse that so incapacitates them that the children are truly unsafe. In a very small number, there are truly sociopathic parents (or a parent) who gets off on violence or sexual abuse. In these cases, there isn’t a good solution. 

But in a surprising number, the root issue isn’t “bad parents,” but poverty

This is the elephant in the room - and something the book really brings out. 

Here is how you can tell that money (or lack thereof) is at the root of these issues. In general, what you see in the system is the children of poor people being adopted by middle or higher class people. You will practically NEVER see a child of wealthy parents in the system at all, and it certainly wouldn’t be adopted by a poverty-level adoptive parent. Likewise, have you EVER heard of a wealthy woman agreeing to be a surrogate for a lower income infertile couple? I bet you haven’t. Because the dynamic here is all about wealth. (On a related note, you very rarely see a white baby adopted by minority parents. The opposite is often true, though…so maybe race is an issue here…)

I imagine that you are willing to grant that bad parenting exists at all socioeconomic levels. And you would be right. But the system is set up to punish poverty, not bad parenting. And, even when a wealthy parent has issue, relatives are typically able to step in and prevent things from going to court. For example, the wealthy mom on powder cocaine (as opposed to crack) will typically quietly enter rehab while a relative takes over care. And the court system never gets involved. Or, a wealthy child can miss school to avoid showing bruises - someone is there to watch him. But a poverty level parent can’t afford to miss work, and suddenly you have a CPS complaint. 

Or how about the system itself. CPS has to offer what are euphemistically termed “reunification services” to parents. But that is a terrible term. What it really means is a series of hoops for the parent to jump through if they want their kid back. Typically, these are classes (say, abuse and neglect prevention, drug rehab, or anger management.) Which are only offered at certain times on certain days, and rarely within walking distance of the parent’s home. And if the parent is working (which they are commanded to do), the classes often conflict with typical low-income job schedules. Oh, and then there are the drug tests, with little notice (for obvious reasons), but these too require leaving work - if you can even get a long enough break to go down and test on the other side of town. 

Having watched this, it is a freaking miracle any low-income parents EVER reunify successfully. And in order to do so, they have to be practically superhuman. And lucky. Particularly if, like Bebe, they lack local relatives or other social support. For that matter, unlike wealthier families, those who do have relatives able to take the kids in will often find that their homes don’t qualify...because of poverty-related issues. 

The history of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is an interesting illustration. At the time the law was passed in 1978, fully three quarters of all Indian families living on reservations (where our racist policies put them) had lost at least one child to adoption by white families. This is basically a form of genocide: removing children from their families. (Hmm, sound like immigration policy right now?) 

In the book, this pattern is pretty clear. Bebe surrenders her baby not because she doesn’t love and want her, but because the child is starving due to Bebe’s poverty and circumstances. This whole thing could have been prevented had society noticed and addressed the poverty problems. Likewise, in the court case, the adoptive parents make the extremely universal argument that “we can provide all these things for the child that mom cannot.” Basically, “we have money.” 

This leads me to what I see as the ugly underbelly of the adoption industry. And it is sure as hell an industry. Don’t get me wrong. The adoptive parents I know are overwhelmingly wonderful, kind, generous people. In some cases, I know people who have intentionally sought out vulnerable kids less likely to be adopted because of disability, age, or other traits. I have nothing but admiration for them. Particularly the ones who have taken on teens, which are extremely difficult to find homes for. 

But. But there is a tremendous demand for certain types of kid. Namely, infants. Particularly healthy infants with blue eyes and light skin. Get one of these in the system under circumstances where a parent lacks the financial clout to fight, isn’t pretty. But infants of all sorts are like this. In super high demand. Wealthy(ish) American parents have gone all over the world seeking adoptable infants now that a combination of readily available birth control, abortion, and more parents choosing to keep children conceived out of wedlock has reduced the “supply” of adoptable infants locally. The days when teen girls would get “in trouble” and quietly disappear for a few months, while a couple got to adopt a cute little baby have largely passed. Which I think drives the adoption industry to find other “sources.” 

Wrapped up with this is a definite entitlement complex among wealthy infertile couples. The idea of accepting that they won’t be parents seems somehow unamerican or something. If you have money, of course you can buy a child from somewhere. And of course children are better off growing up with money than in poverty, right? So what if we have to destroy another family, right?

The bottom line is this: adoption is a response to a catastrophic failure - a horrible tragedy. In the natural course of things, families should stay together. Back in the old days, genuine orphans were more common. Disease killed people in their youth: it was a fact of life. But even back then, many - perhaps most - “orphans” had living parents. Who were too poor to feed them. (For more about this, I suggest reading How To Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore.) This is still the pattern in much of the developing world. And all too often the case here too. 

We need to start thinking about preventing the failure first - keeping families together, even though that will cost money - rather than just removing children from their families. Yes, this will require a different approach to poverty. One less punitive. One that doesn’t criminalize poverty. One where threatening to tear children away from their parents isn’t considered a reasonable response to unpaid school lunch fees. (I really wish I were making that up.) Sure, some tragedies will not be fixable. But some are, and we don’t seem to care. And yes, this will indeed reduce the number of cute adoptable infants. Wealthy infertile couples will have to learn to accept that money can’t buy everything. 

Moving on to the surrogacy issue. Pregnancy is no joke. It has its risks, to be sure. And it can incapacitate a woman for months if something is not quite right - or even sometimes if it is. So, it should be zero surprise that people generally do not wish to endure pregnancy for no reason. For most, obviously, the goal is a child. 

But what about surrogates? If pregnancy were something people did for fun, there surely would be a long line of women offering to carry children for others for free. It turns out that isn’t the case. There are willing surrogates….for the right price. 

Let’s be honest here. Surrogates (except for the rare family member) are overwhelmingly lower income young women, for whom the financial incentive compensates for the risk and discomfort. And those who are renting wombs are overwhelmingly - probably exclusively - people with significant money to pay the price. Mia clearly would not have done so had she not felt she had few if any other options to finish school. And this is the general pattern with surrogates, if you look at the appellate cases on the issue. Womb rental is a thing because of inequality, and would largely disappear in a more equal society. 

Sorry for the rant on this, but this is something that has seriously stuck in my craw, to the point where I considered writing a post just on this issue. Probably in connection with the Abortion Wars™, which are driven in part by a desire to have a larger supply of cute white babies available for adoption. (Sorry, that’s the inconvenient truth.) 

This theme of motherhood - and what makes a person a mother - is a central theme, certainly. How much does blood matter? How much does relationship matter? Who do children truly “belong” to anyway? 

The other theme, which I also found to be highly relevant, was the question of trying to follow the perfect formula. I grew up in a subculture that was trying ever so hard to find the perfect formula to guarantee that the kids would turn out perfectly. (Which included, unfortunately, the desire that the kids turn out to be theological, political, and cultural clones.) From homeschooling to Gothard’s cult to the endless “worldview” and “apologetics” classes, everything was geared toward the formula. It’s not just Fundie Evangelicalism, of course. Ng writes the book to look at progressive liberal upper-middle-class formulae specifically. It is certainly a 21st Century American obsession - and probably a human tendency in general. 

Like Elena, though, for so many of my parents’ generation, it has come to pass that the formula didn’t work. Instead of the perfect life, there is a trail of damaged relationships, disappointed expectations, and trauma. Life happens. Children are born (like Izzy) in medically fragile states. Like Izzy, they often fail to have the compliant personalities parents crave. (For what it’s worth, I am temperamentally a cross between Moody - the guy the girls ignored, despite being intelligent and caring - and Izzy, perpetually fighting against both injustice and authoritarian expectations. Because I am like Moody, I never considered burning it all down. But because I am like Izzy, I chose to follow my own path - away from the formulae and expectations - when I was old enough to do so. I think I am a bizarre combination of rule-follower and rule-breaker. 

It is in this that the book hits on some truths. Mia and Pearl do find themselves having to reevaluate their relationship, and rebuild it on a foundation of truth. But because of the history of love and acceptance, they have something to work with. In contrast, Elena wants to find Izzy, and fix things. But sorry, that will never happen. Izzy has determined to keep running away until she no longer has to come back. And someday, she will leave and never, ever see Elena again. Because Elena has destroyed that relationship beyond repair. 

And Elena doesn’t even know (even at the end) the full truth about her kids. She has no idea that Lexie got pregnant and had an abortion. (Using Pearl’s name to avoid discovery - Elena knows an administrator at the clinic.) Elana has no idea why Moody reacted like he did, or that Trip is sleeping his way through the school. She has focused on her perfect life, at the expense of her relationships. And yes, that hits really, really close to home for me. 

One incident that really shed light on a number of interesting dynamics was the abortion. When Lexie discovers she is pregnant (having been...not as careful as she was raised to be), she doesn’t tell her boyfriend Brian outright. Rather, she uses hypotheticals to gauge his reaction. She is inclined to keep the child. After all, she has a support system, including a mom who can do child care while she goes to college locally. They can marry eventually, and, no big deal right? Money makes everything easier. (And yes, I knew quite a few middle class white kids back in my teens who did just that. And in some cases, married someone other than the father later. Money did make for options…) 

But Brian has an unexpected (for Lexie) reaction. He points out (correctly) that the consequences for him would be rather different. He may come from a middle class home, but the script for him is different because of race. He isn’t the pretty white girl who made a mistake and should be supported. He is every negative stereotype of the African American male. He knocked up a white girl. He got a girl pregnant in high school rather than focusing on his education and career. He will be the bad guy no matter what, no matter what they do. Society will judge him in a way that it will never judge Lexie. Ng gets this precisely right. 

Here is a story to illustrate it. When I was in my mid teens, we attended a multicultural charismatic church for a few years (before moving away.) There were a lot of good things there, and I have kept a number of friends from there. Because it was in a working-class neighborhood (although it was still the most economically diverse church I have attended), there were multiple cultural dynamics (for lack of a better term) at play. Like the population at large, young people had sex. And there were shotgun weddings, because that was how Christians tended to handle things. I’m sure there were plenty of abortions too, but those were kept secret. And, to be fair, some of those marriages are together today, so I don’t mean to sound judgy. Life happened. 

But I noticed an interesting dynamic in one case. A young African American man liked to date white young women. When he eventually got one pregnant and they married, the talk was just...different than it was when it was any other racial combination. (And there was a LOT of interracial marriage and dating - this was Los Angeles in the 1990s, not the 1940s.) While it wasn’t exactly said out loud, people like my parents strongly implied that this was why white girls shouldn’t date black boys. Ouch. 

So, Lexie, realizing that this pregnancy was not going to have a happy ending, goes and gets an abortion without telling her parents. She enlists Pearl to drive her, and ends up crashing for a few nights with Pearl and Mia, as she is in more pain than she expected. Unlike her own parents, Mia is sympathetic and caring - no matter what. Now, admittedly, it is generally easier to handle sensitive stuff outside the dynamic of one’s family. (One reason I believe kids should have people they love and trust other than their parents in their lives.) Some things hit too close to family dynamics. But there is no doubt why Lexie goes elsewhere when things go wrong for her. Her mistake would upset the perfect vision Elena has of the family, and Lexie won’t risk that. Izzy, on the other hand…

There is so much more one can say about this. Mia’s photography is another metaphor, I believe. As my perceptive wife pointed out, when Mia is first learning her craft, she shoots long (yet detailed) shots of her brother and his friends. Later, moving in with Pearl, she takes a mid-range shot with Pearl and a bed frame. By the end, she has taken careful photographs of close up - macro - range for each of the Richardsons, in which she captures their personality through carefully arranged objects. Amanda felt that this represented Mia (and Pearl’s) move to build relationships in Shaker Heights. 

The story has so many details that Ng gets so right, from older vehicles to thrift shopping to city planning to photographic technique. And yes, the legal stuff, which is so rare in media. Our book club has people with different areas of expertise, and all of us found that the details were correct in our realms of knowledge. Ng either draws on a wide range herself, or researched things well. Probably both. 

I know I am forgetting something I want to say, but that’s how it goes with blogging. I will end with a quote that really sums up so much. It comes from Bill’s sudden understanding of Elena, and her reasons why her wealthy friend “deserves” the baby, and Bebe - the biological mother - does not. It sounds so very much like the typical middle-to-upper-class view of poverty. It is something that transcends the liberal/conservative divide, and gets to the heart of the American myth: that karma is real, we get exactly what we deserve, and success isn’t privilege, it is fully and completely earned. 

For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. 

Except that, as Bill, who is a good lawyer, realizes, it isn’t that simple. Often, there isn’t a “right way” and a “wrong way.” There are just different ways. And society makes its choices about which ways to punish - often brutally. And those choices aren’t made in a vacuum. Circumstances limit our choices, and society’s rules are inextricably bound up with our history of racism and oppression of minorities. Which is why there is a racial and economic element to our views of “good” and “bad” parenting - and choices in general. 

The thing with Elena is, she believes she is a good person. And to a degree, she is. She certainly isn’t the Trumpian sort, openly racist and xenophobic, intending harm to others. She goes out of her way, in many ways - just like the integrationists of Shaker Heights - to make the world a better place. But she doesn’t “get” what it is like to be poor. Or an immigrant. Or someone faced with an impossible choice like Bebe. It has always been easy for her to follow the rules. And money has had a lot to do with that. Just like that money protects Lexie in a way that it does not protect Pearl, even though Lexie is the one who actually had an abortion, not Pearl. 

Recently, I read a fascinating article by the wonderful Morgan Guyton. It is mostly about theological issues (which matter to me), but which contained a line which seemed so very appropriate here. Guyton is a Progressive Christian (although I hate that term - I think “Christian” works better, because conservative Evangelicalism these days is really just anti-Christianity) so he is concerned with political liberals. But I think it applies doubly to conservatives who fancy themselves compassionate, while seeking to brutally punish anyone who fails to completely comply with complicated and cruel rules. (See: immigration) It gets to the heart of the difference between those who truly see the impoverished and vulnerable as not just equals, but the moral superiors of those with wealth; and those who condescend to occasionally help the less fortunate, but don’t actually wish to empathize. 

“I’m always listening for whether a particular theology sounds like solidarity with the marginalized or rich liberal angst.” 

This is ultimately Elena’s problem. She has a LOT of rich liberal angst. But she is fundamentally incapable of understanding her own privilege, let alone the lives of those without it. She has no framework to understand why a parent would give up a child - because she has no experience of starvation, and can’t find it in herself to put herself in Bebe’s shoes. She has no framework to understand Mia, because she never had to make a hard choice. Her education was paid for, and she had a clear path to “follow the rules. And that is why she becomes unspeakably cruel to Mia at the end. Never mind that Mia has basically saved Elena’s ass on multiple occasions (the abortion is just one example), or that Mia has even agreed to accept that “liberal angst” motivated charity that Elena offers, because it helps Pearl make friends. Mia didn’t follow the rules, and thus she is fair game for harsh punishment. Basically, Elena is fine with uprooting Pearl, forcing Mia to move away again, and ruin the friendships her children have with Mia and Pearl, because of her misplaced view of the rules. It is her privilege and liberal angst, not any genuine interior compassion which motivates her. The “little people,” Mia, Pearl, and Bebe, are disposable. 

One kind of hopes that when her family implodes in dramatic fashion that Elena will learn something. From my own experience, I am doubtful. But that too is life. It’s messy, and you make the best of what you have. 

This was definitely a thought provoking book, and one which stirred up some emotions I wasn’t expecting, in addition to hitting on issues directly connected with my legal practice. Ng is able to put her finger on some of the unspoken biases in our society (both the worship of individualism and the punishment of those who choose that path), and bring out the complexities that we keep trying to reduce to black and white. 


  1. It's writing like this that keeps me coming back to this blog. Thank you.

    Nice to know I'm not the only one who's noticed for all the cracks about Planned Parenthood being an "abortion mill," its adoption organizations that seems to be much more money motivated.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It is always nice to know someone is reading it. :)