The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Extras
  • Blog:
    The Caribbean: A Reading List for Book Clubs and Bookworms
  • Wordplay:
    I I T S Form O F
  • Book Giveaway:
    My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...
Miracle Creek
Miracle Creek
by Angie Kim

Hardcover (16 Apr 2019), 368 pages.
(Due out in paperback Apr 2020)
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
ISBN-13: 9780374156022
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A thrilling debut novel for fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng about how far we'll go to protect our families - and our deepest secrets.

My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn't even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first ...

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine - a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic "dives" with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos' small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night - trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges - as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim's Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author's own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life "submarine" patient. Both a compelling page-turner and an excavation of identity and the desire for connection, Miracle Creek is a brilliant, empathetic debut from an exciting new voice.

YOUNG YOO

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.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Miracle Creek by Suki Kim. Copyright © 2019 by Suki Kim. Excerpted by permission of Sarah Crichton Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic "dives" with the hopes of treating conditions such as autism and infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mys-teriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos' small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim's Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, draw-ing on the author's own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life "submarine" patient. Both a compelling page-turner and an excavation of identity and the desire for connection, Miracle Creek is a brilliant, empathetic debut from an exciting new voice. We hope the following questions will enhance your reading group's experience of this thrilling debut novel about how far we'll go to protect our families—and our deepest secrets.


Topics for Discussion

  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 Matt—what 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 charac-ters 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 lead-ing 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. 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 plot—for 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?

Questions by Patricia Daneman

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Sarah Crichton Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

The story of a deadly explosion at a medical treatment facility, Miracle Creek is both a suspenseful courtroom mystery and a fascinating societal critique.

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Miracle Creek, the debut novel from Angie Kim, hinges on the mysterious explosion of an oxygen tank. This disaster has unfolded at Miracle Submarine—a treatment center in rural Virginia specializing in hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT—which has attracted customers seeking help for various conditions. The explosion has killed Kitt Kozlowski, who was in the tank with her autistic son TJ, and Henry Ward, a boy who may have been autistic but had conflicting diagnoses. Henry's mother, Elizabeth, who was outside at the time of the incident, is now on trial for murder, with many believing she started the fire that caused the explosion because she wanted her son dead.

While the mystery of how the explosion happened fuels Miracle Creek, the novel looks at responsibility beyond the question of who or what killed Henry and Kitt. For example, Miracle Submarine's technician, Pak Yoo, wasn't properly supervising the HBOT session when the tank exploded, having asked his wife, Young, to cover for him. Pak and Young have agreed to keep this detail a secret, believing it's not important to the case. As it turns out, multiple people involved in the explosion, including the Yoos' daughter Mary, have their own guilty secrets about the night it occurred.

We get to know the characters through short, riveting third-person narratives—with the exception of some first-person accounts from Young. These narratives provide backstory and show the progression of the trial. The content of the case isn't pleasant, but watching it unfold is mesmerizing. Snappy courtroom scenes feature Abe, a crowd-pleasing prosecutor, and Shannon, an attorney with a flair for disconcerting witnesses. Both lawyers twist the case in unexpected directions.

Kim also digs into social factors surrounding the explosion. We see how Pak, a Korean immigrant, hoped to use HBOT to give his family financial footing in the U.S. In one flashback, racial tensions flare between Janine, a Korean-American doctor who supports Pak's venture, and her non-Korean husband Matt, also a doctor, who's reluctant to get involved with Miracle Submarine. Janine accuses Matt of being "against anything Asian." Whether or not it's true, her accusation points to the possibility that Matt doesn't appreciate what's at stake for the Yoos, personally or financially.

It's interesting to compare the Yoos' situation with that of Miracle Submarine's customers, namely mothers of children with conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. Like Pak and Young, the mothers who invested in HBOT did so hoping it might give them and their offspring a shot at a more "normal" life. Like all of the Yoos, the mothers face above-average societal pressure and scrutiny. It's hard not to wonder if Pak or his customers would have put their hopes into HBOT if they weren't excluded from mainstream society. In recollections of the time leading up to the explosion, when Miracle Submarine's operations are threatened by protesters against treatment for autism, Pak and some of the mothers experience frustration, and certain mothers feel fear and self-doubt.

The novel is sensitive towards social issues in general, but I would have liked to see it look at ableism and medical abuse more critically. To be fair, we do see the court examine the question of what constitutes medical abuse. We also see HBOT moms question whether they've chosen treatments for their kids based on quality of life or their own desire for social normalcy. Elizabeth recalls Kitt saying to her, "Why do you keep doing this shit? I think the protesters might have a point with you," referring to a chemical treatment Elizabeth has mentioned. However, these instances are overshadowed by disproportionally sympathetic portrayals of the mothers' own troubles, as well as simplistically harsh depictions of the aggressive anti-HBOT protesters. This prevents the kind of deep exploration we get of other issues, such as the dilemma of having selfish desires as a mother, which a few characters discuss at length.

Despite this imbalance, Miracle Creek ultimately puts trust in readers to come to their own conclusions concerning hard questions—about racism, sexism, ableism, and justice. By showing us how little the truth may matter in a legal setting, Kim creates the eerie feeling that it's up to us to make our own decisions about the guilt or innocence of her characters, and that's no easy task. This is a book that demands an audience willing to approach it with care, and it deserves to find that audience.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Publishers Weekly
Kim, a former lawyer, clearly knows her stuff, and though the level of procedural detail is sometimes unwieldy, nonetheless what emerges is a masterfully plotted novel about the joys and pains of motherhood, the trick mirror nature of truth, and the unforgiving nature of justice.

Booklist
Powerful courtroom scenes invite comparisons to Scott Turow, but Kim's nuanced exploration of guilt, resentment, maternal love, and multifaceted justice may have stronger appeal for readers drawn to the Shakespearean tragedies in Chris Bohjalian's Midwives (1997) and William Landay's Defending Jacob (2012).

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner. Should be huge.

Author Blurb Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night
I know this story but have never seen it in a novel...Kim has written a bold debut novel about science and immigration and the hopes and fears each engenders - unforgettable and true.

Author Blurb Laura Lippman, author of Sunburn
Miracle Creek is a marvel, a taut courtroom thriller that ultimately tells the most human story imaginable, a story of good intentions and reckless passions. Compelling, generous, at once empathetic and unsparing. I am wrecked, I am heartened and hopeful, which means, in short, that Miracle Creek is pretty much the perfect novel for these chaotic times in which we live.

Author Blurb Scott Turow, author of Testimony
Miracle Creek grabbed me hard right from the start. This is a terrific courtroom thriller, a sly whodunit that's beautifully written and also full of heart.

Author Blurb Janelle Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller Watch Me Disappear
Miracle Creek is an engrossing puzzle-box of a book: a twisty courtroom drama that also manages to be emotionally astute, culturally perceptive, and deeply empathetic. Angie Kim tackles hot-button subjects with a delicate touch, proving herself a master of both portraiture and storytelling. I loved this novel.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Vivian H
Who To Blame
This is a rare court room drama that caused me to feel empathy for all of its flawed characters- immigrants trying to give a daughter a chance for success in America, teen rebellion, the cultural strictures for Korean women, the mothers seeking experimental treatments for their disabled children, the guilt & hope they feel, even the protestors trying to shut the operation down. The story is told from multiple perspectives with each chapter peeling away another layer of onion. There is a lot of heartache. I thought this was an excellent first book.

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HBOT: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

HBOT MultichamberHBOT (hyperbaric oxygen therapy), the medical treatment at the center of Miracle Creek, is a real treatment used for a variety of conditions. While undergoing HBOT, you breathe pure oxygen in an environment where the air pressure is much higher than normal. The higher pressure allows you to take in more oxygen, which can help your body heal faster from injuries, infections, and other conditions.

Records suggest that it was a British physician who first applied hyperbaric therapy in 1662. French physician Paul Bert later researched the science behind hyperbaric therapy and, in 1878, published his findings in a book he wrote, entitled La Pression Barométrique. In recent years, medical professionals all over the world have used hyperbaric chambers to treat a variety of conditions.

Doctors may recommend hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a primary treatment for some conditions. Patients, or family members of patients, may opt to try it as an alternative for others. The FDA has approved HBOT for treating 13 conditions including decompression sickness, a condition that can affect scuba divers, and also miners in some conditions.

Various agencies and medical centers have made statements about the limits of HBOT. The FDA has expressed concern about HBOT treatment centers misleading people with inaccurate claims and advises patients to consult their doctors about any treatments for a condition before undergoing them. According to the Mayo Clinic, "the evidence is insufficient to support claims that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can effectively treat" a substantial number of conditions, including cancer, autism, HIV, cerebral palsy, and Alzheimer's.

HBOT MultichamberWhile generally considered safe, HBOT does carry some risks. Johns Hopkins lists "rare" possible side effects, some of which are temporary nearsightedness, seizures, low blood sugar, and—interestingly enough—decompression sickness. Due to the flammability of pure oxygen, another risk is fire.

Although HBOT is frequently used to treat some conditions like autism and cerebral palsy, its effectiveness and even appropriateness is questionable, but this hasn't stopped parents of children with these conditions from trying it. The author of Miracle Creek, Angie Kim, wrote an article for Vogue about her attempt to treat her son's celiac disease and ulcerative colitis with HBOT. She saw an unexpected increase in his hearing function (following a diagnosis of a hearing disorder) and improvement with his digestive issues, as well as some changes in the conditions of other patients attending the HBOT sessions.

Anecdotal stories of success, along with positive results in scientific studies, may very well help HBOT continue to gain attention in years to come. Despite a lack of conclusive evidence, some smaller studies and individual cases suggest HBOT could have potential to treat depression and anxiety, Alzheimer's, and certain types of cancer.

By Elisabeth Cook

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