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Literature / Miracle Creek

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Miracle Creek is a 2019 Courtroom Drama by Angie Kim.

Miracle Creek is the name of of a hyperbaric oxygen clinic in rural Virginia, where people with conditions ranging from autism to infertility can seek treatment in a pressurized chamber. But one day the oxygen tank connected to the chamber explodes, killing Henry Ward, a mildly autistic eight-year-old, and Kitt Kozlowski, the mother of a nonverbal autistic boy. The explosion turns out to have been caused by a cigarette outside the chamber. The prime suspect is Henry's mother Elizabeth, the only parent not inside the chamber on the day of the explosion, who was extremely vocal about the difficulties of caring for Henry even though he was far less disabled than most patients. Other suspects include Pak and Young Yoo, who owned the chamber and may be trying to commit Insurance Fraud so they can send their daughter Mary to college, and one of the protestors outside the clinic that morning, who may have wanted to prove a point about the safety of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.


Miracle Creek contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The explosion occurred in the summer of 2008, and the trial was a year later in 2009.
  • 555: Potomac Mutual Insurance, which provides fire insurance, has the number 800-555-0199.
  • Asian and Nerdy: Janine Cho's parents practically ignored her as a child so they could focus on her brother, their firstborn son. She rebelled by throwing herself into her studies, eventually becoming a doctor, while her brother dropped out of college to become an actor. She laughs at the irony: her rebellion against Korean gender stereotypes led her right into the white American stereotype of brilliant, overachieving Asians.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: During Young and Mary's prison visits, Young speaks in Korean, while Mary speaks in English.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Mary, partly as a reaction to being uprooted and moved to America as a preteen. Once Teresa overhears her talking on the phone to a friend, complaining about getting caught stealing Pak's credit card and mentioning her secret cigarette stash. After she hangs up, she makes fun of her friend and mutters, "Bitch."
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  • Cut Himself Shaving: The week before his death, Henry had cuts on his arms, which he told Kitt were from bug bites and Detective Heights were from being scratched by the neighbor's cat. In fact, Elizabeth scratched him for making them late to speech therapy. Later, she said, "Oh, sweetie, look at that scratch! Have you been playing with that cat again? You need to be more careful."
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Janine's husband Matt Thompson, who was undergoing treatment in the chamber for infertility, can't help but wonder if she married him partly because her parents didn't want white in-laws.
  • Disappeared Dad: When Young and Mary moved to America, Pak became a "wild-goose father," which normally refers to men who migrate annually between a job in one country and a family in another. Now people like him are called penguin fathers, because he couldn't afford to migrate and went four years without seeing his family.
  • Driven to Suicide: Full of guilt over her treatment of Henry, desperate for the trial to end, and determined not to let her lawyer pin the crime on anyone else, Elizabeth escapes from custody and drives off a cliff.
  • Eyes Always Averted: As a young child, Henry could go weeks without looking directly at anyone. Elizabeth once pinched his shoulders hard enough to leave bruises, and was elated when he made direct, prolonged eye contact with her as he twisted to get away. As an older child, Elizabeth said, "Henry, don't be spacey; look at me, always look at the person you're talking to," in almost every conversation. Now she wonders why she couldn't just talk to him like a human being instead of obsessing over where his eyes were pointing.
  • Fingore: Matt badly burned his hands trying to help Henry and Kitt. The index and middle fingers of his right hand all have to be amputated, and the fingerprints of the others were melted away.
  • For Want of a Nail: The explosion was caused by a large number of people's impulses and mistakes piling on top of each other. If any number of things had gone a tiny bit differently, such as Matt going to 7-Eleven instead of Exxon so he wouldn't have to wait 30 seconds for the guy in front of him to turn, nobody would have died.
  • Gaslighting: Elizabeth had semi-regular attacks of rage that involved hurting Henry in some way, like pinching or scratching him. Afterwards, she would matter-of-factly tell him he was hurt in some other way, and she would watch his eyes dart back and forth as he tried to decide which version to believe. If she repeated her lies often enough, Henry would forget what really happened.
  • Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: The prosecutor, Abe Patterley, points at Elizabeth as he begins his opening argument, and she seems to wither under the gesture.
  • Hates Being Touched: Kitt is very surprised when her son TJ hugs Young as soon as he sees her, since he normally hates touching people. Young thinks it's because her shirt is the same shade of purple as Barney, so after that she wears the shirt every time she sees him.
  • Heel Realization: Hours before Henry's death, Elizabeth realizes how much the overcrowded schedule must be stressing him out. She cancels all Henry's therapy appointments and decides that the next HBOT treatment will be his last. Since she continues to emotionally abuse him in the car on the way to the session, it seems unlikely that the change would have stuck.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: Attempted by Pak. He helped Teresa, Rosa, TJ, and Matt out of the chamber, then ran in for Henry and then Kitt, even while covered in burns and coughing on smoke. Both died anyway, and Pak ended up paralyzed.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: In 2004 or so, Pak moved Young and Mary from Seoul to Baltimore so Mary could have a better education, even though neither wanted to go, while Pak stayed behind to work. In Baltimore, Young worked long hours at a store that was in such a bad area, Mary wasn't allowed to visit her at work. Meanwhile, Mary felt lost and confused in middle school, with only a rudimentary grasp of English and almost no understanding of American customs. The more English she learned, the more of her classmates' insults she understood, and she had a hard time making friends.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: While Matt and Janine were trying to conceive, sex became such a scheduled, goal-oriented activity that one night Matt found that he couldn't get it up anymore.
  • Man on Fire: A particularly gruesome example. Everyone in the chamber was wearing an oxygen helmet, and TJ's and Henry's were connected to the tank that exploded. Henry's head was consumed by flame, while the flame-retardant ring around his neck kept the rest of his body completely undamaged. TJ's helmet happened to be resting in Kitt's lap, saving him but setting her on fire.
  • Meaningful Rename: Mary was known as Meh-hee-yah in Korea. When she moved to America at the age of about 12, Young helped her pick the name Mary, the closest English approximation she could think of. Her first months and years in America were so traumatic that she started thinking of the two names as different people - Meh-hee-yah was an outgoing girl who got in trouble for chatting too much and argued her way out of most punishments, while Mary was quiet, obedient, and alone.
  • Playing Sick: Elizabeth faked an illness to avoid going into the chamber the day of the explosion.
  • Posthumous Character: Kitt and Henry are both killed offscreen in the first chapter. Kitt gets some paraphrased dialogue, although she isn't named, but Henry isn't even mentioned until after his death. Both are characterized entirely from other people's memories, especially Elizabeth's.
  • Sand In My Eyes: Invoked by Elizabeth when five-year-old Henry cried because it was so hot and stuffy in the $10,000 portable sauna she was using to sweat out toxins. She told him, "Wow, you're sweating so much, it's even getting in your eyes!" Before long he was smiling and repeating, "Henry sweat so much!"
  • Sensory Overload: Elizabeth remembers Henry covering his ears and rocking during a housewarming party when he was three.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: The Yoos, although unlike most examples they seem to genuinely believe their own pitch.
  • Stress Vomit: An AC blows hot air on Elizabeth's cheek, reminding her of how the muscle on Henry's right jaw was burned away. She vomits in her lap.
  • Tears of Joy: Rosa Santiago, a teenager with severe brain damage, undergoes a week of hyperbaric oxygen treatment, after which her mother Teresa thinks she's making more attempts at saying words. When she says, "Ma," tears of joy pour down Teresa's face.
  • Waving Signs Around: Protestors outside the clinic hold signs that say "I'M A CHILD, NOT A LAB RAT!", "LOVE ME, ACCEPT ME, DON'T POISON ME," and "QUACK MEDICINE=CHILD ABUSE."
  • While Rome Burns: Abe points out that while Henry and Kitt were being incinerated, Elizabeth sat by the creek sipping wine, smoking the same brand of cigarettes used to set the fire, and listening to Beyoncé on her iPod.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?:
    • All the parents signing their kids up for HBOT are this to some degree, but Elizabeth is an extreme example. She makes a big show out of being tired and stressed out, plays Misery Poker with parents whose kids can't walk, talk, or use the toilet, and spends all her time dragging Henry to different therapies and researching experimental treatments. She didn't just want a neurotypical child, she wanted specific traits - easygoing, cuddly, popular, good in school - and so she endlessly nags and belittles Henry over behavior that's completely typical for a boy his age, wrecking his self-esteem.
    • Mary's gender is a milder example. Young needed an emergency hysterectomy when she was born, and Pak's family bemoaned his misfortune in his only child being a girl. Pak said, "She's as good as ten sons," but knew how unconvincing he sounded.