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The True Story Behind ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

March 17, 2020
5 min read

Hulu’s ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ tells a complex and layered story with a strong theme of motherhood. However, apart from that, the tale also features a dominant theme of racism and social privilege. The series depicts how things that seem fine on the surface often hide tons of mess under the surface. Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elena who is a helicopter mom, embodies and personifies this theme throughout the series.

Little Fires Everywhere Plot: What is it About?

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ revolves around two mothers: Mia and Elena. Mia is a nomadic artist who has a daughter named Pearl. Elena, on the other hand, is a mother of four and lives in a wealthy neighborhood called Shaker Heights.

Elena rents one of her family’s properties to Mia on a monthly basis since she cannot afford an annual lease. Over time the lives of Elena’s family members begin to get intertwined with those of Mia and Pearl. Elena’s son, Moody develops romantic feelings for Pearl while Pearl finds herself attracted to Moody’s brother, Trip. Elena’s youngest daughter, Izzy develops a connection with Mia. Elena asks Pearl to work as a domestic helper at her home.

Soon, Mia finds out that the adopted baby of Linda, one of Elena’s friends belongs to her coworker, Bebe. Bebe had abandoned the baby since she did not have enough money to feed her. Linda and her husband had picked it up. A custody battle between Bebe and Linda ensues, pitting Mia and Elena against each other.

Is ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a True Story?

To begin with, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is not based on a true story. The plot is completely fictional. The mini-series is an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name.

However, Ng took inspiration from the neighborhood that she grew up in, for the setting of her novel. In fact, she did not even change the name of the setting: Shaker Heights. “I really wanted to write about my hometown. I think I had reached a stage where I’d been away long enough, so I could see it with a bit of distance. I loved growing up in Shaker Heights, and I really miss it,” Ng told Seattle Times. 

Shaker Heights

Shaker Heights is a city in Ohio. The town likes to promote itself as one of the most racially aware place in the United States, championing racial integration. Its public schools, which are widely recognized in the country, train the students in racial sensitivity. They are taught topics like the dynamics of racial prejudice and race-based polarization.

The public officials also keep a conscious tab of the racial demographic of block parties. One can say that the city is paranoid about being racially inclusive and maintaining racial “symmetry” or balance. It is also very particular in other ways. Keeping grass in one’s front lawn above a certain height is considered to be a fine-worthy offense. This is seen in ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ as well.

Let’s take a look at the history of Shaker Heights briefly. In 1956, a bomb exploded in a newly-moved African-American’s house. This made the town change its outlook and become racially inclusive as opposed to harboring racial intolerance.

However, for maintaining a racial balance, the Caucasian residents needed to be discouraged from emigrating. White exodus was not uncommon since a large chunk of the Caucasian population all over the country feared their homes turning into ghettos (racist, of course) after the arrival of African-Americans into their once-gated communities.

Hence, Shaker Heights started to encourage more Caucasian families to purchase properties. However, this resulted in African-Americans facing increased difficulties in purchasing a property in Shaker Heights. The community soon started to face harsh criticism for its policies. While its intentions might have been good, the racial integration policy still ended up being discriminatory against African-Americans. Hence, in 1979, the Housing Office rejigged its policies in favor of more equal treatment.

Yet, instead of letting people buy whichever property they wish, the community started to micro-manage housing. “Unfortunately, you can’t leave it to market forces. Whites can move anywhere they can afford. The number of whites who want to move into a mostly black neighborhood is small,” former mayor, Stephen J. Alfred told New York Times.  

Yet, despite the efforts and good intentions of the Shaker Heights community, their approach was problematic. Despite their attempts, there are neighborhoods in the city which are predominantly African-American or Caucasian. Higher courses in schools used to have an alarmingly high percentage of Caucasians. This is also depicted in ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ when Pearl is not allowed to take a more advanced course. Shaker Heights’ racial history suits a dominant theme of ‘Little Fires Everywhere:’ that of things seeming fine on the surface, but harboring several problems underneath.

Read More: Best Movies About Racism on Netflix

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