I recently read Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee. I'd previously read her debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, which I enjoyed, so I thought I'd give this one a go too.
Outrun the Moon is about Mercy Wong, a Chinese girl in 1906 San Francisco who wants an education. After eighth grade, education for Chinese girls is no longer offered, so she bribes her way into a high school for white girls. The deal is she gets to be a student tuition-free if she can get the headmaster approval to expand his chocolate shop to Chinatown. To cover the bribe, she poses as a nobleman's daughter from China. Unsurprisingly she meets opposition from almost everyone at the school, but she's determined to prove herself. "I will sell that chocolate, and show her that I have the staying power of a wine stain."
A few weeks into the term, the 1906 earthquake hits San Francisco. The school, and most of the city, is ruined, and a lot of people camp out in Golden Gate Park. Mercy and her fellow students learn to rely on each other and work together to not only survive, but do what they can to serve the other survivors around them.
I gave this book 4 of 5 stars on Goodreads.
The first few chapters are intriguing. You see Mercy in crammed Chinatown with her little brother, who has weak lungs after being forcibly vaccinated by the white government. You see her in the white areas being robbed and distrusted because she doesn't look like them. "You'll understand if I don't trust you." But you also see her internalizing the wisdom of a book for business women, and bribing her way into school, so she can give her brother a better life than the harsh conditions her father works in. And you see her never step down. "You'll understand if I don't trust you."
Once she gets to the school, the story is a little disjointed. She attends classes, some girls are nice to her, she has one main rival, she has one business meeting in her attempt to get the chocolate shop approved in Chinatown. The dust jacket made it sound like the earthquake's aftermath was the main plot, but it doesn't happen until the middle of the book. Knowing ahead of time about the earthquake, everything before it seemed like it was going nowhere. I doubted anyone would care about a chocolate shop after the earthquake, and the arguments with Mercy's main rival Elodie (the chocolatier/headmaster's daughter) seemed like little episodes rather than a line of plot dominoes. The first half of the book felt like setup, something that had to be there to put rivalries in place so the girls could overcome them later.
What did I like, then? Well, everything else. Mercy is a strong heroine, not aggressive or overbearing, but determined. She doesn't cower before higher society, and does what she can to better her life and her brother's.
Mercy has a great narrator voice, too. I've read a few books narrated in first person, present tense, and it seems that style has a higher risk of either A) the narration relying too heavily on the "I" inner world, and thus the action feeling airy like a dream, or B) the main character having no personality. This author falls into neither trap. The writing is evocative, and just plain interesting to read. "If someone had told me I would one day be defending Elodie's mole, I would've told them to go push a cow up a tree."
What I noticed about Mercy in this book (and Sammy in Under a Painted Sky) is that, concerning Chinese vs western, Stacey Lee knows her stuff. Mercy's home life, her whole being, is a good mix of eastern and Catholic. Mercy doesn't put much stock in her mother's fortunetelling, yet she describes people in terms of physiognomy. She doesn't put a lot of emphasis on her father's Catholic faith, but she's familiar with the confession box and prays to the Christian God a few times. She thinks of herself as Chinese, and she thinks of herself as an American. The author never throws in something Chinesey to be like, "Look! Now you can tell the character is Chinese." She never throws in something churchy to be like, "Now you can tell they're also western." Everything that's there is a part of who Mercy is.
Which brings me to this: How different are we, really? If I can read a book and identify with a made-up person who fears the number four, why can't people identify with other people in real life?
What great books have you read recently?