The “gripping… page-turner” (Time) hitting all the best of summer reading lists, Miracle Creek is perfect for book clubs and fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng
How far will you go to protect your family? Will you keep their secrets? Ignore their lies?
In a small town in Virginia, a group of people know each other because they’re part of a special treatment center, a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions from infertility to autism. But then the chamber explodes, two people die, and it’s clear the explosion wasn’t an accident.
A powerful showdown unfolds as the story moves across characters who are all maybe keeping secrets, hiding betrayals. Chapter by chapter, we shift alliances and gather evidence: Was it the careless mother of a patient? Was it the owners, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? Could it have been a protester, trying to prove the treatment isn’t safe?
“A stunning debut about parents, children and the unwavering hope of a better life, even when all hope seems lost" (Washington Post), Miracle Creek uncovers the worst prejudice and best intentions, tense rivalries and the challenges of parenting a child with special needs. It’s “a quick-paced murder mystery that plumbs the power and perils of community” (O Magazine) as it carefully pieces together the tense atmosphere of a courtroom drama and the complexities of life as an immigrant family. Drawing on the author’s own experiences as a Korean-American, former trial lawyer, and mother of a “miracle submarine” patient, this is a novel steeped in suspense and igniting discussion. Recommended by Erin Morgenstern, Jean Kwok, Jennifer Weiner, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman, and more Miracle Creek is a brave, moving debut from an unforgettable new voice.
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SHE FELT LIKE A BRIDE walking into the courtroom. Certainly, her wedding was the last time — the only time — that a roomful of people had fallen silent and turned to stare as she entered. If it weren't for the variety in hair color and the snippets of whispers in English as she walked down the aisle — "Look, the owners," "The daughter was in a coma for months, poor thing," "He's paralyzed, so awful" — she might have thought she was still in Korea.
The small courtroom even looked like an old church, with creaky wooden pews on both sides of the aisle. She kept her head down, just as she had at her wedding twenty years ago; she wasn't usually the focus of attention, and it felt wrong. Modesty, blending in, invisibility: those were the virtues of wives, not notoriety and gaudiness. Wasn't that why brides wore veils — to protect them from stares, to mute the redness of their cheeks? She glanced to the sides. On the right, behind the prosecution, she glimpsed familiar faces, those of their patients' families.
The patients had all gathered together only once: last July, at the orientation outside the barn. Her husband had opened the doors to show the freshly painted blue chamber. "This," Pak said, looking proud, "is Miracle Submarine. Pure oxygen. Deep pressure. Healing. Together." Everyone clapped. Mothers cried. And now, here were the same people, somber, the hope of miracle gone from their faces, replaced by the curiosity of people reaching for tabloids in supermarket lines. That and pity — for her or themselves, she didn't know. She'd expected anger, but they smiled as she walked by, and she had to remind herself that she was a victim here. She was not the defendant, not the one they blamed for the explosion that killed two patients. She told herself what Pak told her every day — their absence from the barn that night didn't cause the fire, and he couldn't have prevented the explosion even if he'd stayed with the patients — and tried to smile back. Their support was a good thing. She knew that. But it felt undeserved, wrong, like a prize won by cheating, and instead of buoying her, it weighed her down with worry that God would see and correct the injustice, make her pay for her lies some other way.
When Young reached the wooden railing, she fought her impulse to hop across and sit at the defense table. She sat with her family behind the prosecutor, next to Matt and Teresa, two of the people trapped in Miracle Submarine that night. She hadn't seen them in a long time, not since the hospital. But no one said hi. They all looked down. They were the victims.
* * *
THE COURTHOUSE WAS in Pineburg, the town next to Miracle Creek. It was strange, the names — the opposite of what you'd expect. Miracle Creek didn't look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom. The "Miracle" name and its marketing possibilities (plus cheap land) had drawn them there despite there being no other Asians — no immigrants at all, probably. It was only an hour from Washington, D.C., an easy drive from dense concentrations of modernity such as Dulles Airport, but it had the isolated feel of a village hours from civilization, an entirely different world. Dirt trails instead of concrete sidewalks. Cows rather than cars. Decrepit wooden barns, not steel-and-glass high-rises. Like stepping into a grainy black-and-white film. It had that feel of being used and discarded; the first time Young saw it, she had an impulse to find every bit of trash in her pockets and throw it as far as she could.
Pineburg, despite its plain name and proximity to Miracle Creek, was charming, its narrow cobblestone streets lined with chalet-style shops, each painted a different bright color. Looking at Main Street's row of shops reminded Young of her favorite market in Seoul, its legendary produce row — spinach green, pepper red, beet purple, persimmon orange. From its description, she would've thought it garish, but it was the opposite — as if putting the brash colors together subdued each one, so the overall feel was elegant and lovely.
The courthouse was at the base of a knoll, flanked by grapevines planted in straight lines up the hill. The geometric precision provided a measured calm, and it seemed fitting that a building of justice would stand amid the ordered rows of vines.
That morning, gazing at the courthouse, its tall white columns, Young had thought how this was the closest she'd been to the America she'd expected. In Korea, after Pak decided she should move to Baltimore with Mary, she'd gone to bookstores and looked through pictures of America — the Capitol, Manhattan skyscrapers, Inner Harbor. In her five years in America, she hadn't seen any of those sights. For the first four years, she'd worked in a grocery store two miles from Inner Harbor, but in a neighborhood people called the "ghetto," houses boarded up and broken bottles everywhere. A tiny vault of bulletproof glass: that had been America for her.
It was funny how desperate she'd been to escape that gritty world, and yet she missed it now. Miracle Creek was insular, with longtime residents (going back generations, they said). She thought they might be slow to warm, so she focused on befriending one family nearby who'd seemed especially nice. But over time, she realized: they weren't nice; they were politely unfriendly. Young knew the type. Her own mother had belonged to this breed of people who used manners to cover up unfriendliness the way people used perfume to cover up body odor — the worse it was, the more they used. Their stiff hyperpoliteness — the wife's perpetual closed-lip smile, the husband's ma'am at the beginning or end of every sentence — kept Young at a distance and reinforced her status as a stranger. Although her most frequent customers in Baltimore had been cantankerous, cursing and complaining about everything from the prices being too high to the sodas too warm and deli meats too thin, there was an honesty to their rudeness, a comfortable intimacy to their yelling. Like bickering siblings. Nothing to cover up.
After Pak joined them in America last year, they'd looked for housing in Annandale, the D.C. area's Koreatown — a manageable drive from Miracle Creek. The fire had stopped all that, and they were still in their "temporary" housing. A crumbling shack in a crumbling town far from anything pictured in the books. To this day, the fanciest place Young had been in America was the hospital where Pak and Mary had lain for months after the explosion.
* * *
THE COURTROOM WAS LOUD. Not the people — the victims, lawyers, journalists, and who knew who else — but the two old-fashioned window-unit air conditioners on opposite sides behind the judge. They sputtered like lawn mowers when they switched on and off, which, because they weren't synchronized, happened at different times — one, then the other, then back again, like some strange mechanical beasts' mating calls. When the units ran, they rattled and hummed, each at a slightly different pitch, making Young's eardrums itch. She wanted to stick her pinkie deep inside her ear into her brain and scratch.
The lobby plaque said the courthouse was a 250-year-old historical landmark and asked for donations to the Pineburg Courthouse Preservation Society. Young had shaken her head at the thought of this society, an entire group whose sole purpose was to prevent this building from becoming modern. Americans were so proud of things being a few hundred years old, as if things being old were a value in and of itself. (Of course, this philosophy did not extend to people.) They didn't seem to realize that the world valued America precisely because it was not old, but modern and new. Koreans were the opposite. In Seoul, there would be a Modernization Society dedicated to replacing this courthouse's "antique" hardwood floors and pine tables with marble and sleek steel.
"All rise. Skyline County Criminal Court now in session, the Honorable Frederick Carleton III presiding," the bailiff said, and everyone stood. Except Pak. His hands clenched his wheelchair's armrests, the green veins on his hands and wrists popping up as if willing his arms to support his body's weight. Young started to help, but she stopped herself, knowing that needing help for something basic like standing would be worse for him than not standing at all. Pak cared so much about appearances, conforming to rules and expectations — the quintessentially Korean things she'd strangely never cared about (because her family's wealth afforded her the luxury of being immune to them, Pak would say). Still, she understood his frustration, being the lone sitting figure in this towering crowd. It made him vulnerable, like a child, and she had to fight the urge to cloak his body with her arms and hide his shame.
"The court will now come to order. Docket number 49621, Commonwealth of Virginia versus Elizabeth Ward," the judge said, and banged the gavel. As if by plan, both air conditioners were off, and the sound of wood striking wood reverberated off the slanted ceilings and lingered in the silence.
It was official: Elizabeth was the defendant. Young felt a tingle inside her chest, like some dormant cell of relief and hope had burst and was spreading sparks of electricity throughout her body, zapping away the fear that had hijacked her life. Even though almost a year had passed since Pak was cleared and Elizabeth arrested, Young hadn't quite believed it, had wondered if this was a trick, and if today, as the trial started, they'd announce her and Pak as the real targets. But now the waiting was over, and after several days of evidence — "overwhelming evidence," the prosecutor said — Elizabeth would be found guilty, and they'd get their insurance money and rebuild their lives. No more living in stasis.
The jurors filed in. Young gazed at them, these people — all twelve, seven men and five women — who believed in capital punishment and swore they were willing to vote for death by lethal injection. Young had learned this last week. The prosecutor had been in a particularly good mood, and when she asked why, he'd explained that the potential jurors most likely to be sympathetic to Elizabeth had been dismissed because they were anti-death-penalty.
"Death penalty? Like hanging?" she'd said.
Her alarm and revulsion must have shown, because Abe stopped smiling. "No, by injection, drugs in an IV. It's painless."
He'd explained that Elizabeth wouldn't necessarily get death, it was just a possibility, but still, she'd dreaded seeing Elizabeth here, the terror that would surely be on her face, confronting the people with the power to end her life.
Now, Young forced herself to look at Elizabeth, at the defense table. She looked like a lawyer herself, her blond hair twisted into a bun, dark green suit, pearls, pumps. Young had almost looked past her, she looked so different from before — messy ponytail, wrinkled sweats, unmatched socks.
It was ironic — of all the parents of their patients, Elizabeth had been the most disheveled, and yet she'd had by far the most manageable child. Henry, her only child, had been a well-mannered boy who, unlike many other patients, could walk, talk, was toilet-trained, and didn't have tantrums. During orientation, when the mother of twins with autism and epilepsy asked Elizabeth, "Sorry, but what's Henry here for? He seems so normal," she'd frowned as if offended. She recited a list — OCD, ADHD, sensory and autism spectrum disorders, anxiety — then said how hard it was, spending all her days researching experimental treatments. She seemed to have no clue how she sounded complaining while surrounded by kids with wheelchairs and feeding tubes.
Judge Carleton asked Elizabeth to stand. She expected Elizabeth to cry as he read the charges, or at least blush, her eyes down. But Elizabeth looked straight at the jury, her cheeks unflushed, eyes unblinking. She studied Elizabeth's face, so empty of expression, wondering if she was numb, in shock. But instead of looking vacant, Elizabeth looked serene. Almost happy. Perhaps it was because she was so used to Elizabeth's worried frowns that their absence made Elizabeth look contented.
Or perhaps the newspapers were right. Perhaps Elizabeth had been desperate to get rid of her son, and now that he was dead, she finally had a measure of peace. Perhaps she had been a monster all along.CHAPTER 2
HE WOULD'VE GIVEN ANYTHING not to be here today. Maybe not his entire right arm, but certainly one of its three remaining fingers. He was already a freak with missing fingers — what was one more? He did not want to see reporters, cameras flashing when he made the mistake of covering his face with his hands — he cringed, picturing how the flash would reflect off the glossy scar tissue covering the doughy clump that remained of his right hand. He did not want to hear whispers of "Look, the infertile doctor," or face Abe, the prosecutor, who'd once looked at him, head tilted as if studying a puzzle, and asked, "Have you and Janine considered adoption? I hear Korea has lots of half-white babies." He did not want to chat with his in-laws, the Chos, who tsked and lowered their eyes in unison at the sight of his injuries, or hear Janine rail at them for their shame over any perceived defect, which she'd diagnose as yet another of their "typically Korean" prejudices and intolerances. Most of all, he did not want to see anyone from Miracle Submarine, not the other patients, not Elizabeth, and definitely, most certainly, not Mary Yoo.
Abe stood and, walking by, put his hand on Young's, draped across the railing. He patted gently, and she smiled. Pak clenched his teeth, and when Abe smiled at him, Pak stretched his lips as if trying to smile but not quite managing it. Matt guessed that Pak, like his own Korean father-in-law, did not approve of African-Americans and thought it one of America's great flaws that it had an African-American president.
He'd been surprised when he met Abe. Miracle Creek and Pineburg seemed so provincial and white. The jury was all white. The judge was white. Police, firemen — white. This wasn't the kind of place he'd expect to have a black prosecutor. Then again, it wasn't the kind of place anyone would expect to have a Korean immigrant running a mini-submarine as a so-called medical device, but there it was.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Abraham Patterley. I am the prosecutor. I represent the Commonwealth of Virginia against the defendant, Elizabeth Ward." Abe pointed his right index finger at Elizabeth, and she startled, as if she hadn't known that she was the accused. Matt stared at Abe's index finger, wondered what Abe would do if he, like Matt, lost it. Right before the amputation, the surgeon had said, "Thank God your career's not too affected by it. Imagine being a pianist or surgeon." Matt had thought about that a lot. What job could one have and not be too affected by amputation of the right index and middle fingers? He would've put lawyers in the category of "not too affected," but now, looking at Elizabeth withering under Abe's simple gesture of pointing at her, the power that finger gave Abe, he wasn't sure.
"Why is Elizabeth Ward here today? You've already heard the charges. Arson, battery, attempted murder." Abe stared at Elizabeth before turning his body square to the jury box. "Murder."
"The victims sit here, ready and eager to tell you what happened to them" — Abe motioned to the front row — "and to the defendant's two ultimate victims: Kitt Kozlowski, the defendant's longtime friend, and Henry Ward, the defendant's own eight-year-old son, who can't tell you themselves, because they are dead.
"Miracle Submarine's oxygen tank exploded at about 8:25 p.m. on August 26, 2008, starting an uncontrollable fire. Six people were inside, three in the immediate area. Two died. Four, severely injured — hospitalized for months, paralyzed, limbs amputated.
"The defendant was supposed to be inside with her son. But she wasn't. She told everyone she was sick. Headache, congestion, the works. She asked Kitt, the mother of another patient, to watch Henry while she rested. She took wine she'd packed to the creek nearby. She smoked a cigarette of the same type and brand that started the fire, using the same type and brand of matches that started the fire."
Abe looked at the jurors. "All of what I just told you is undisputed."
Abe closed his mouth and paused for emphasis. "Un-dis-pu-ted," he said, enunciating it like four separate words. "The defendant here" — he pointed that index finger again at her — "admits all this, that she intentionally stayed outside, faking an illness, and when her son and friend were being incinerated inside, she was sipping wine, smoking using the same match and cigarette used to set the blast, and listening to Beyoncé on her iPod."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Miracle Creek"
Copyright © 2019 Angela Suyeon Kim.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Year Later: The Trial: Day One,
The Trial: Day Two,
The Trial: Day Three,
The Trial: Day Four,
A Note About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
1. In the opening chapter of Miracle Creek, Young Yoo narrates her version of events on the evening of the HBOT explosion. What is the effect of this first-person narrative compared with the rest of the book, which is written in the third person? What are the details in Young’s story that create suspense? What does Young know that hints at the truth about what happened? What information is she missing?
2. Abe Patterley, the prosecuting attorney, calls Dr. Matt Thompson as his first witness against Elizabeth Ward. What dual purpose does Matt’s testimony serve? What does it reveal about Mattwhat he believes about the effectiveness of HBOT and how he came to be undergoing treatments, as well as his personal life? What is Matt afraid of divulging in court?
3. What are some of the differences between American and Korean culture that the book explores? How are these experienced by Matt and Janine? By the Yoo family? How are the Korean characters stereotyped by others? How do they defy stereotype?
4. As the trial proceeds, the defense and prosecuting attorneys attempt to re-create the time line leading to the explosion. What are some of the lies and false assumptions contained in the testimony of witnesses and experts? What is the circumstantial evidence that led to Elizabeth’s arrest? How does each of the lawyers try to influence the jury?
5. Autism is diagnosed on a spectrum with a wide variation in symptoms, as evidenced by TJ Kozlowski and Henry Ward. In Miracle Creek, the mothers of autistic children are portrayed as having a wide range of beliefs about treatments for their children. What do Kitt, Elizabeth, and Ruth Weiss each believe about treatments? What are the circumstances of Kitt’s and Elizabeth’s lives that influence their behavior?
6. On the day of the explosion, as well as during the trial, many of the characters make decisions that ultimately change the course of their lives. What are some of these decisions? How might things have turned out differently if, for example, Matt hadn’t bought cigarettes, or Janine hadn’t gone to see Mary?
7. Pak Young is described as a “wild goose father,” a man who remains in Korea to work while his wife and children move abroad for better education. Pak will make any sacrifice for Mary. Who are the other fathers in the story and what are their relationships with their wives and children? What is the picture of fatherhood that emerges?
8. What is the reality of being the mother of a special needs child? How do Elizabeth, Teresa, and Kitt each cope with the daily demands of caregiving? Where do they find support? What are their relationships with each other? Elizabeth, in particular, devotes herself to Henry. What is her motivation for constantly seeking new therapies, some of which are painful and possibly harmful? How does Kitt feel about Elizabeth’s treatment of Henry? What does Elizabeth realize as she watches the video of Henry? Why does she take the drastic action she takes at the end of the novel?
9. Several small and seemingly insignificant objects are important to the development of the book’s characters and the unfolding of the plotfor example, Janine’s wok and the balloons. What are some of the others and the purposes they serve?
10. Each of the main characters feels guilty about something he or she did or failed to do. Why is Young relieved on the first day of the trial when the judge announces, “Docket number 49621, Commonwealth of Virginia versus Elizabeth Ward”? What are Pak and Young, Matt and Janine, hiding from Abe Patterley? At the book’s conclusion, is there anyone who can be described as completely innocent? Did any good come of the tragedy?
11. What brought Young and Pak from Seoul to Baltimore and, ultimately, to Miracle Creek? What is Young’s first impression of the United States and its citizens? How were the Yoo family’s expectations of America different from the realities? How were Young, Pak, and Mary different as individuals and as a family before they immigrated?
12. As Day Three of the trial ends, Young and Matt are each determined to learn the truth about what their spouses have been hiding. What has Young discovered that causes her to doubt Pak? Why does Pak continue to lie to her? What has Matt discovered about Janine? What lies do Matt and Janine persist in telling each other?
13. On Day Four of the trial, Abe introduces as evidence “a blow-up of notepad paper, phrases scrawled everywhere,” taken from Elizabeth’s house after the explosion. In particular, there are five phrases on the page, highlighted in yellow: I can’t do this anymore; I need my life back; It needs to end TODAY!!; Henry = victim? How?; and NO MORE HBOT, which has been circled several times. What was Elizabeth’s frame of mind when she wrote these notes to herself? What is the truth about the last day of Henry’s life?
14. Shannon and Abe appear to be skillful and highly ethical attorneys. In order to do their jobs, they have no choice but to believe their witnesses as they build their cases. Do either of them doubt any of the information they’ve been given? What tactics do each of them use to influence the jury? Which one of them seems closer to winning the case when Elizabeth’s disappearance puts an end to the trial?
15. What is the chain of events that turns Mary’s teenaged feelings of anger and humiliation into the actions she takes on the night of the explosion? How does Pak rationalize his plan for saving her? Should Matt and Janine have been held accountable for how they treated her?
16. Were you surprised to discover the identity of the person who set the fire? Do you view what that person did as murder? Was that person’s sentence fair? How about the sentences of the others?