Thursday, November 30, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere - by Celeste Ng

The first time I heard of Shaker Heights, Ohio was in 1987. I was temping in an office in downtown Baltimore, sending surveys to the company's clients. I remember typing "Shaker Heights, Ohio" onto an envelope and wondering where it was in relation to Oxford, Ohio - the college town to which I was about to move (216 miles, BTW). After I moved to Ohio I heard a lot more about Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland from whence a fair number of students who attended Miami University of Ohio (one of the so-called "public ivies") hailed.

Developed as a planned community, Shaker Heights has some rather strict zoning laws, and for resident Elena Richardson the orderly layout of the city mirrors the careful planning of her own life: education, marriage, job, children. She didn't count on her youngest child, Izzy, to be a black sheep, and likewise never dreamed of the disruption that her new neighbor, Mia and Mia's daughter Pearl, would bring into her life.

As I wrote in my Stepford Wives post some years ago "you can't have a perfect town, if it doesn't have a library". Shaker Heights of course has a public library - a safe place to which teenager can ride a bike alone, or that offers a convenient lie as to his whereabouts; where an artist can find a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt; where an adoptive mother can take her infant to story hour; or a social worker can arrange a visit for the birth mother of that same baby to have a court-ordered visitation. The public library in Ng's books functions as all of these.

Shaker Heights' excellent schools also have libraries, of course, and attorney Ed Lim knew that there were very few books with Asian characters to be found in them, one exception being The Five Chinese Brothers which Lim's daughter checked out in second grade and had caused her to return "home deeply troubled". Ng's story takes place in the late 1990s, a time when emphasis on diversity in schools was just emerging, before people "would talk about books as mirrors and windows".

Teenager Pearl has spent her whole life traveling with her artist mother from place to place, sometimes moving twice a year and "had spent most of her childhood in libraries, taking refuge among the shelves as a new girl bouncing from school to school, absorbing books as if they were air".

The fact that libraries are often places of stability and comfort can belie the fact that they can also be places of controversy. Is the library really a good place to have a supervised visit? What books are appropriate for young people to read, and what should be the fate of those that are troubling?

There is definitely a shake up in Shaker Heights.

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