Little Fires Everywhere, a consideration of race and class in America

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is a well-written, topical book, an engrossing read, and the basis for a brand-new series starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon on Hulu.  I want to tell you what I think about it, but let’s face it, I’m sure you can go online or pick up a TV guide at your grocery store checkstand and find the basic outline of the book’s plot.  Instead, I want to talk about Betsy DeVos.

While reading this novel, I got to thinking about an episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life that devoted more than half the program to a feature on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  So I went online to find the episode, and you can easily find it too; it aired in September of 2017.

When Betsy DeVos was up for senate confirmation (before Mr. Trump discovered he could sidestep this process by simply rotating loyalists through the cabinet by making them “acting” heads of this or that department or bureaucracy) many leaders in the field of education rose to protest Mrs. DeVos’s nomination on the grounds that “she had never even stepped foot in a public school.”  This American Life producer Susan Burton shares a home town with Mrs. DeVos, and she’d heard otherwise.  It seems Mrs. DeVos had served as a mentor to a few students in a public elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She volunteered through a program sponsored by a church in the area.  The school chosen was one where students were primarily of a lower socio-economic status, i.e. working class or poor, and the majority ethnicity was Latinx.

Mrs. DeVos and members of her staff refused (or perhaps ignored) requests by This American Life for interviews and comments.  So the program was based on info provided by teachers and other members of the school staff (a counselor and a social worker), as well as an on-air interview with one of Mrs. DeVos’s mentees, who, at the time of the program, was a senior in high school, and still under Mrs. DeVos’s mentorship.

I’m just going to cut to the chase:  after mentoring a couple of girls, Betsy DeVos moved them out of public school into private schools at her own expense.  She bought a car for one parent, and hired another as laundress/housekeeper.  The girl who was interviewed on the show, expressed gratitude to Miss Betsy for all she’d done for her, as well she should.  Mrs. DeVos was paying for a portion of the girl’s tuition at a private Christian high school, but it was made clear that the girl’s mother was also contributing a portion.  Both mother and daughter were working for Mrs. DeVos, along with another mentee, the teenagers performing household cleaning tasks during summer vacation.

The church organizer of the mentorship program said on the show that many of the mentors became friendly with their mentee’s families, gifting them with holiday presents and meals, and other extras that might enhance their lives.  This was not unusual.  It’s just that Betsy DeVos is a billionaire, the recipient of a large family fortune, old money.  She is able and willing to do a lot more.

The teachers and other staff members interviewed were delicate in their description of Mrs. DeVos.  She was cordial to staff, but not overly-friendly.  She had a driver who delivered her to the front door of the school in a big black SUV, and then parked on the street and waited for her to come out.  They all said they assumed that Mrs. DeVos was well-meaning, that her heart was in the right place, that it was generous of her to share such things with these students.  But they said diplomatically that they were proud of their public school and the things teachers and students were accomplishing there.  They wished that Mrs. DeVos’s money had been spent somehow in a way that would have benefitted the entire school.

Now here, let me say, for anybody who doesn’t know me personally, I am a retired public school teacher.  Of course I don’t know these teachers in Grand Rapids personally, but I’ll bet I know how they felt:  they were no doubt royally pissed at Betsy DeVos!  It was a slap in the face to hard-working teachers to have some rich woman come in and lure these girls out of their classrooms.  I’m guessing they’re not fans of the Secretary of Education.  But then, not too many public school teachers are.

On the other hand, I do want to say sincerely that I can relate to Mrs. DeVos as well (surprise!)  Really.  My parents sent me to Catholic Schools.  They weren’t anything too fancy way-back-when, but my parents and teachers instilled in me a dedication to charity, a responsibility to give back to a community and culture that’s been good to us.  That’s probably why I became a public school teacher in the first place.  So, sure, I’m willing to believe that Betsy DeVos is operating out of a sense of Christian duty, that she truly does want to help those less fortunate.

But let’s be clear:  Betsy DeVos wants to help people who deserve help.  And of course Betsy DeVos—and others like her—will be the final arbiters of whom is deserving.  But there’s something else—and I can’t say that this was stated explicitly on the radio show, it wasn’t, maybe it’s just a gut feeling I have.  I feel Betsy DeVos is laboring under the delusion that she—and her family and her whole social class—are the embodiment of the American Dream.  In other words, she thinks we all want to be Betsy DeVos.  And Betsy DeVos’s idea of charity work is to choose those young people whom she will lift out of poverty to become members of Betsy DeVos’s social class.  She no doubt feels this is noble work.  What I don’t know is if she deliberately wants to leave the vast majority of other children behind or if she just doesn’t get it.  I don’t know.

Okay, I could start ranting about Betsy DeVos and her ilk now.  But you see, I don’t have to rant about Betsy DeVos, because in Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng makes my point so much better than I ever could.  When the two main characters confront each other near the end, Mia (the vagabond artist played by Kerry Washington) says to Elena Richardson (the professional, upper-middle class wife and mother played by Reese Witherspoon):  “It bothers you, doesn’t it? . . .I think you can’t imagine.  Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got.  Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office.  Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.”

There it is:  the crux of the book, the brilliant point that we all need to absorb right now in America.  If we ever hope to evolve as a healthy culture we need to understand this.  The metaphor of America as melting pot is no longer useful.  Think of us as a mixed salad:  we can all come together to become something greater than we are as individuals, and yet we retain our individual character, our individual cultures.

Those of us who are white may celebrate color-blindness:  the Richardson family in Little Fires says repeatedly that they don’t see race.  They have friends who are African American and Asian, they point out.  It doesn’t make any difference to them.  I know I thought the same thing when I was first teaching.  But I quickly learned that if you don’t notice other people’s differences, you don’t learn anything.  It’s easy to be accepting when others have assimilated, when they hide their true selves from us.  But then we may realize we are hiding who we truly are from ourselves too.  As Mia continues, she pulls back a curtain for Mrs. Richardson:  “It terrifies you.  That you missed out on something.  That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted. . . Was it a boy?  Was it a vocation?  Or was it a whole life?”

Ng is a master story teller, weaving nearly a dozen characters with backstories into the main plot.  Even minor characters who may appear in only one or two scenes are given their due as Ng teases us with fascinating details of their lives.  She does this by skillfully applying an omniscient point of view.  I have noticed that such a viewpoint often creates emotional distance between reader and characters, but it does allow Ng to give us a broad overview of the story, something that seems necessary in this case.

I strongly urge you to read this novel; it tells us so much about who we are right now—even though the events of the story happen in the late 1990s.  I can’t help but guess there’s a sequel in the future, as I for one would love to know what happens to these people in the 21st century.

I haven’t seen the new TV series, so I have no idea if it equals the power of the book.  But I must point out one flaw in the story—and after everything I’ve said so far, this may surprise you.  I think Ng is a bit hard on Elena Richardson.  The character is beyond archetype; she is fully fleshed out.  Yet I don’t see much to recommend her:  she seems arrogant, high-minded, rigid, almost regimental.  Plus she has more blind spots than Betsy DeVos!  And that, imho, is a lot.  Maybe it’s just me—maybe I’m worried I’m too much like her, hence refuse to acknowledge any positive attributes.  But see, that’s the point.  Too many white, straight, middle class, Christian, well-meaning Americans are a lot like Elena Richardson.  If Ng wants us to recognize ourselves, she might have softened her just a little.


Photo by Elijah O’Donnell.










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