Review by Anri Wheeler
Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops by Allison Hong Merrill (She Writes Press, Sept. 2021) traces her abuse-filled childhood in Taiwan—intuiting from a young age that her mother was “angry because I am alive”—her conversion to Mormonism and her toxic marriage to Cameron, an American missionary, who brings her to the United States.
Upon realizing that Cameron has left her, taking all of their money and belongings with him, Merrill no longer removes her shoes when she enters her (now empty) apartment. “No need now. It wasn’t sacred ground anymore, as the Chinese culture had taught me that a home was.” The loss is palpable, and her recovery, which spans the rest of the book, is arduous.
Merrill’s book is structured with short bursts of chapters that encourage page turning. They work to both quicken the pace and amplify the power of any given anecdote or detail. Some, in their lyricism, read like prose poems. Merrill’s writing comes alive in the small details, like the light switch that starts the memoir and returns throughout as an echo of the day that changed everything. The “cracking open” of a bag increases the tension of a teenage moment with her mother; her stepmother is described as “emit[ing] a stink of hate that no one should ever have to inhale.” Then, there are the glimpses of the natural world that beautifully echo Merrill’s search for faith, one that forces her outside of herself and provides solace and healing.
Fire Hoops maps out the powerful cycles into which Merrill is born, and we root for her as she navigates those she wishes to continue and works to break those that never served her. “My mama was the first in her clan who married an outsider and moved out of the farming village,” she writes, foreshadowing what she will do. She goes on to share how her mother and those of her generation were “victims of history, sacrificed in the name of war.” Merrill too falls victim, to the lure of Cameron who, like war, is full of false promises and violence. Cycle breaking is hard work and Merrill, like many of us, doesn’t always accomplish it on her first try. As to that which she seeks to pass on, so much is embodied in her grandfather, Ah-Gung, who loves Merrill unconditionally. He is the quiet hero of the story.
Fire Hoops provides an illuminating glimpse into Mormon culture. Merrill, though young at the time she first encounters missionaries, sees clearly how they are skilled at learning Mandarin, yet lack fundamental awareness of Taiwanese cultures and customs. And yet, when Cameron first kisses her and she writes, “Taiwanese people didn’t kiss,” no connection is made to those earlier missionaries. Much in the same way, her falling for Cameron, and the subsequent transition to being his fiancée, are under explored, leaving the reader to connect the dots.
What was often missing in the memoir was the voice of a wise narrator, of Merrill commenting from her vantage point decades later. It was clear what younger versions of Merrill felt, yet there was no exploration of her thoughts today looking back on so many red flags that are clear to the reader. This was particularly true when it came to her partnership with Cameron, prompting a break in trust between this reader and the narrator. More reflection on her conversion could have further rounded out the narrative. Rare moments where Merrill does look back stick out as among the most powerful of the book. Merrill concludes about the love she never received from her mother, “Now, I can finally see that the real weak link in the chain was us. Both Mama and me.” Or, when she writes, “In retrospect I understand that back then I only chose to see what I wanted to see.” Merrill carries in her body the trauma of feeling like she didn’t belong, of the abuse at the hands of her parents and stepmother throughout her childhood. “Evil is the same everywhere, wearing different disguises. That chilling realization left me shaking,” Merrill says in reference to her stepmother. These moments were lasting in their potency.
Another area ripe for more nuanced exploration: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Merrill readily rejects the patriarchal structures that guided her family’s traditional Taiwanese beliefs, and yet, after converting to Mormonism, she didn’t turn that same lens onto the practices of LDS. Though she does question wives dropping out of school to support their husbands, she ultimately comes to define herself by the successful relationship she enters post-divorce. The final prize of jumping through the titular ninety-nine fire hoops is a man, albeit a good one. This complicates the oft-proclaimed notion that the book is about Merrill finding her voice and coming into her own power. There are ways in which she does these things, and yet the bar remains that of finding a partner and settling down.
Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops toggles between gorgeous flashes of prose and pages that fall back on cliches, often leaving the reader with a sense of whiplash. In one such flash, Merrill refers to language as “a longing for home.” This speaks to the ways writing this memoir (in English, which she references multiples times as not her first language) shares with the reader a specific version of herself and evokes its own specific longing: for a home that Merrill seeks to carve out for herself, on her own terms.