Excerpt from Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
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  • Published:
    Sep 2017, 352 pages

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Erin Szczechowski

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Excerpt
Little Fires Everywhere

The orchestra teacher, Mrs. Peters, was widely disliked by everyone. She was a tall, painfully thin woman with hair dyed an unnatural flaxen and cropped in a manner reminiscent of Dorothy Hamill. According to Izzy, she was useless as a conductor and everyone knew to just watch Kerri Schulman, the first-chair violin, for the tempo. A persistent rumor—after some years, calcified as fact—insisted that Mrs. Peters had a drinking problem. Izzy hadn't entirely believed it, until Mrs. Peters had borrowed her violin one morning to demonstrate a bowing; when she'd handed it back, the chin rest damp with sweat, it had smelled unmistakably of whiskey. When she brought her big camping thermos of coffee, people said, you knew Mrs. Peters had been on a bender the night before. Moreover, she was often bitingly sarcastic, especially to the second violins, especially the ones who—as one of the cellos put it drily—were "pigmentally blessed."

Izzy, who had been playing violin since she was four, and had been assigned second chair even though she was a freshman, should have had nothing to fear. "You'll be fine," the cello had told her, eyeing Izzy's frizzy golden hair—the dandelion fro, Lexie liked to call it. Had Izzy kept her head down, Mrs. Peters would likely have ignored her. But Izzy was not the type to keep her head down.

The morning of her suspension, Izzy had been in her seat, practicing a tricky fingering on the E string for the Saint-Saëns piece she'd been working on in her private lessons. Around her the hum of violas and cellos tuning up grew quiet as Mrs. Peters stormed in, thermos in hand. It was clear from the start that she was in an extraordinarily foul mood. "Hangover," Kerri Schulman mouthed to Izzy, who nodded gravely. She had only a general sense of what this meant.

At the podium, Mrs. Peters took a long swig from her mug of coffee. "Offenbach," she barked, raising her right hand. Around the room students riffled through their sheet music. Twelve bars into Orpheus, Mrs. Peters waved her arms. "Someone's off." She pointed her bow at Deja Johnson, who was at the back of the second violins. "Deja. Play from measure six."

Deja, who everyone knew was painfully shy, glanced up with the look of a frightened rabbit. She began to play, and everyone could hear the slight tremor from her shaking hand. Mrs. Peters shook her head and rapped her bow on her stand. "Wrong bowing. Down, up-up, down, up. Again." Deja stumbled through the piece again. The room simmered with resentment, but no one said anything.

Mrs. Peters took a long slurp of coffee. "Stand up, Deja. Nice and loud now, so everyone can hear what they're not supposed to be doing." The edges of Deja's mouth wobbled, as if she were going to cry, but she set her bow to string and began once more. Mrs. Peters shook her head again, her voice shrill over the single violin. "Deja. Down, up-up, down, up. Did you not understand me? You need me to speak in Ebonics?"

It was at this point that Izzy had jumped from her seat and grabbed Mrs. Peters's bow.

She could not say, even when telling Mia the story, why she had reacted so strongly. It was partly that Deja Johnson always had the anxious face of someone expecting the worst. Everyone knew that her mother was an RN; in fact, she worked with Serena Wong's mother down at the Cleveland Clinic, and her father managed a warehouse on the West Side. There weren't many black kids in the orchestra, though, and when her parents showed up for concerts, they sat in the last row, by themselves; they never chitchatted with the other parents about skiing or remodeling or plans for spring break. They had lived all of Deja's life in a comfortable little house at the south end of Shaker, and she had gone from kindergarten all the way up to high school without—as people joked—saying more than ten words a year.

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From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.

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