Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2019, ISBN #978-0-374-15601-2
New York, 2019
Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Fall 2019 issue)
Angie Kim ambitiously draws on her personal experiences as a trial attorney, a mother of children with special needs, and a teenage immigrant from a working-class Korean family in her debut novel, Miracle Creek. It’s a lot to pack into one story, but Kim does it seamlessly, keeping us on the edge of our seats with a classic whodunit mystery and breaking our hearts along the way.
Miracle Creek is the name of the small Virginia town where recent Korean American immigrants Pak and Young Yoo are raising their teenage daughter, Mary. It also doubles as a convenient name for their new business venture, a pressurized oxygen chamber that some medical experts believe will cure various conditions such as autism and infertility. Though the Yoos have struggled financially during their first few years in the U.S., they hope that the Miracle Submarine will be the answer to all their problems, and provide their daughter Mary with a better future in the form of college tuition.
In the opening scene, we learn that there was a terrible explosion during one of the oxygen “dives.” One year later, Elizabeth Ward, the mother of one of the Miracle Submarine patients, is on trial for the murder of two people in the explosion, including her own son Henry. Kim utilizes different voices/narrators in each chapter to piece together the story of what happened. Did Elizabeth, an overwhelmed single mother, deliberately set the submarine on fire? Was it the stressed-out Yoos, who stood to collect considerable insurance money? Could it have been one of the many angry protesters outside of the submarine who claimed that the oxygen dives were harming innocent children? Or was it just a random and unfortunate accident, as this was a relatively new and uncharted medical procedure?
Kim puts her experience as a courtroom lawyer to good use here, as the prosecution and defense attorneys take turns influencing us, the readers, with theories on what really happened, as well as our empathy for what each character is going through. Elizabeth and the other two Miracle Submarine mothers all loved their children deeply, and dedicated their lives to researching various treatments for their children’s autism —- changing their diets, going to individual therapy, driving hours to go to special schools, and finally trying the controversial oxygen dives. These treatments inevitably took a toll on the parents and even led to the destruction of Elizabeth’s marriage.
Each witness at the trial admits that Elizabeth was an amazing mother. The other mothers confess that parenthood in itself can be trying, but parenting a child with special needs is exhausting. Elizabeth may have admitted to one of the other mothers that she sometimes wondered what her life would be like without Henry, but what parent hasn’t wistfully flashed back to life pre-parenthood, when one could sleep until noon, or go away for a weekend at a moment’s notice? Another mother whose daughter has a much more severe form of autism yearned for the days when she could run errands or use a public restroom without having to wheel her teenage daughter in her wheelchair with her everywhere.
In these scenes, Kim opens the door into the often-lonely world of parenting. When Henry was a few years old and his family moved into a new neighborhood full of young children, Elizabeth hoped that it would be the “village” of the adage “it takes a village to raise a child.” She longed for friendship and support. Instead, she felt even more alone, because of Henry’s autism. “She grudged and envied and coveted and downright hated them, these women with their exquisitely normal kids. Walking through the kids laughing and talking, her arms ached to pick up one, any of them, and claim that child as her own. How different her life would be, full of mirth and trivialities (“I’m at my wit’s end, Joey won’t drink juice!” or “Fannie dyed her hair fuchsia!”).
These interactions are uncomfortable, but Kim doesn’t flinch. She also writes with searing honesty about the Yoos’ immigrant experience, which has been anything but the American Dream. Pak was a “ghee-ruh-ghee ap-bah,” or “wild-goose father,” what Koreans called a man who stayed in Korea to work while his wife and children went to the U.S. for a better life and education.
Young, who had been working on her master’s degree in English literature in Korea when she married Pak, abruptly stopped her studies because her mother told her that no man would want a woman who was more educated than him. Thus, she moved to Baltimore with Mary, and worked 16 hour days in a convenience store, often sleeping on a cot in the store because she was too exhausted at the end of the day to drive home to see Mary, who was already sleeping by then.
Mary, a young teenager, grew to resent her mother, and instead focused all her love and devotion on her father, who was still in Korea. When Pak eventually joins his wife and daughter in the U.S., Yoo is happy to see her husband and daughter bonding, but also feels a bit jealous. After all, this is the man who couldn’t hide his disappointment when Mary was born a girl.
Kim is not only an excellent observer of courtroom and family tensions, but also a master of words. The Yoo family had suffered so much after immigrating to the U.S., so the accident which led to Pak’s severe burns and permanent wheelchair status would not break Young. “Like those frogs that get so used to hot water, they stay in the boiling pot. She’d gotten used to tragedy, become numb to it.”
Luckily, Miracle Creek is not all misery and tragedy. Kim adds some humor, such as some wink-wink scenes that are familiar to anyone who has been an interracial relationship. Matt and Janine are a young couple who invested in the Miracle Submarine, as Janine’s Korean parents were friends with the Yoos. Matt was struggling with male infertility, and Janine hoped that the oxygen dives would cure him. In a flashback scene from happier times, Matt’s cousin gave Janine a wok as a bridal shower gift, even though it wasn’t on her registry, explaining that it seemed “so appropriate.”
Later, Janine overhears the cousin talking about Matt’s “Oriental fetish,” saying, “What is this now, the third?” As if the family couldn’t get any more offensive, Matt’s grandmother tells Janine how excited they are all are for their future gorgeous mixed children, saying, “I saw this special on the Vietnam War half-breed kids, and I’m not kidding, they’re just beautiful.”
If there is any weakness in this layered story, it is the ending, where the cause of explosion is finally revealed. After fleshing out these flawed yet wonderful characters, Kim wraps up the mystery a bit too neatly. However, the [submarine] ride was well worth it.