City Paper is not for tourists
A murder trial that could result in the death penalty makes for good fiction. This is Angie Kim’s material for her novel, Miracle Creek. Each chapter features the perspective of a different participant, combining Perry Mason legal suspense with detailed character development—except for the prosecutor and defense attorney. Their traits are telegraphed with a few quick sentences. Kim reveals what monsters prosecutors can be with a thumbnail sketch: “The prosecutor had been in a particularly good mood … he’d explained that the potential jurors most likely to be sympathetic … had been dismissed because they were anti-death-penalty.” Later, the prosecutor explains away the barbarity of capital punishment: “by injection, drugs in an IV. It’s painless.”
Set in Northern Virginia, Miracle Creek follows a Korean immigrant family’s efforts to manage the ruins of their business—technological therapy for special needs children—after arson destroys it and kills two of their patients. The immigrant experience in Baltimore and Virginia is knowledgeably laid out, and so is the experience of families with autistic children and children with disabilities. The ins and outs of the trial, something the author, a lawyer, understands deeply, are well drawn. There are also many shrewd general authorial observations: “People talked so much about the loss of intimacy between married couples, as the years progress … but no one measured the number of hours spent holding your baby in the first year of life versus the remaining years, the dramatic dissipation of intimacy…”
This novel’s theme is parenthood; parenthood under extreme duress. Many of the parents struggle with ambivalence and despair, even the wildly obsessive, over-achieving mother charged with murder. The Korean parents have sacrificed everything for their daughter, Mary, to come live first in Baltimore and later in a very white Virginia community, where Mary feels out of place. As one witness thinks of this locale, “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.”
The Yoos plunge into this homogeneous suburb, desperate to succeed for their daughter’s sake. This leads them to lie in court, and the lies twist and turn. Indeed, most of this story’s main witnesses lie. They all have something to hide, and even the threat of an acquaintance facing lethal injection cannot extract the truth from them. Confronted with their lies, they stick to them. Lies beget more lies. But with an extremely skillful defense attorney, this mendacity finally unravels, and with it, the world comes crashing down on them all.
People lie out of love and fear. Once their terrible lies are exposed, relationships crumble, but not all relationships—not the ones between parent and child. This, the novel says, is the most foundational of all. It is what people die for. As one mother thinks, “stakes that mattered—not which college your kids got into, but their very survival in society, whether they’d learn to talk, if they’d ever move out of your house, and how they’d live when you died.”
Miracle Creek is not a cheery story. It casts an unsparing eye on parenthood, marriage, disability, the clumsy, often brutally wrong justice system, and the immigrant experience. One woman’s parents tell her fiancé, “We prefer she marry a Korean man, but at least you are a doctor.” The novel seems to ask: All this frantic striving for what? It can end in an instant, with a lie exposed, or a moment of emotional collapse. What counts is a parent’s love for their child.