“Ninety-Nine Refiner’s Fires” by Rachel Rueckert

Book review of Allison Hong Merrill’s Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops

Abusers hate nothing more than when those they’ve harmed speak up. If we evaluated books based on the courage it takes authors to write their painful lived experiences despite threats and the fear or reliving trauma, Allison Hong Merrill’s coming-of-age memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops (She Writes Press, September 2021), might be the bravest memoir I’ve ever read. 

The book opens with a staggering scene: Allison, a 23-year-old Taiwanese immigrant who followed a missionary back to the United States, comes home to their apartment in Texas to find that none of the lights work. Confused, she tries to communicate with the apartment manager — a difficult feat, given that Allison is learning English through tape-recorded college lectures and her husband rarely lets her speak to others. Eventually, Allison learns that her husband, Cameron, has packed up all their possessions, turned off the electricity, drained their bank accounts, left behind some legal papers she cannot read, and fled without notice. 

Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops follows Allison’s harrowing journey of literal survival, both during this abusive relationship and after her cruel abandonment. It also explores her traumatic past in Taiwan and the physical and mental abuse she and her sisters faced in her family there before she is ultimately disowned for joining the Church. The stakes rival Tara Westover’s Educated. 

This resilient narrator will leave you in awe — the transformation of a woman who survived for many days on a single hamburger and Ketchup packets into a writer with an MFA, wielding the truth of her experience on the page. Since the age of four, she earnestly sought to know her life’s purpose, despite a mother who tells her early on, “Questions like that don’t feed an empty stomach, do they? Think about practical things!” Or worse, “I should’ve suffocated you when you were a baby! If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to stay in this crappy marriage.” Her wounded mother contrasts with the narrator, who loves her family but does not want to share the same fate. Allison rejects the idea of fate and instead embraces the radical notion of love and joy. 

The memoir seeks to show the power of choice Allison asserts over her life as she eventually rises from the ashes to reclaim a life with agency. It is a life that includes people who see her value, despite a fraught dating scene at BYU in the 90’s as a 24-year-old divorced woman of color. “Education was my way to get away,” she says. She sees God as an essential part of her remarkable journey and credits finding the Church and learning of her divine worth as foundational and empowering. According to Allison, it allowed her to untangle the narrative of obedience and submission to men’s wills that she’d been taught, along with a status quo “continuum of suffering” narrative. She is unapologetically devotional, saying things like: “We got engaged, got married, and commenced dating, in that order… I was convinced God had approved of it. But I mistook my wish for God’s will.” Throughout the book, she sprinkles quotations from modern-day Church leaders or teachings on clean language, eternal perspective, forgiveness, and other subjects. Despite her abuse, she chooses to see every person in her life, even her ex-husband, as a child of God. Allison balances these statements and hard-earned wisdom with self-deprecation, owning her own mistakes when appropriate along the way. Throughout it all, she does not lose sight of herself and what she deserves. 

A month before the release of Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, Allison posted a heartbreaking social media update that, despite changing the names and identifying details of her ex-husband and his family, she’d received threats from lawyers. She will not pull the book, however, nor will she be silenced. We as a community can support her by rallying around this memoir and amplifying its message louder than those who try to tear her back down. ⋑

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