30 Mar / Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee [in Shelf Awareness]
Even as Mercy Wong’s father expects that she will marry the herbalist’s son and be a “meek” wife, he also insists that she never stop learning because she must “be as smart as the white ghosts.” In San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906, 15-year-old Mercy’s graduation from the Oriental Public School means her education has stalled. While she might not object to an intended match to her handsome childhood sweetheart, she absolutely rejects her limited options as “a mere girl, a Chinese girl no less.” She vows to rescue her family from poverty, especially her beloved younger brother whose already weakened body couldn’t possibly endure the grueling laundry business. Guided by pithy aphorisms from her Book for Business-Minded Women by Radcliffe-educated Texan Mrs. Lowry, Mercy is determined to gain entrance into the exclusive St. Clare’s School for Girls.
“[C]ircumstances don’t determine where you can go, only your starting point,” Mrs. Lowry instructs. So with an unlikely combination of exquisite chocolate, a coveted plant bulb, daring bluster – and a little sly manipulation – Mercy follows her mentor-on-the-page and joins the entitled St. Clare’s girls. Admission, alas, doesn’t mean acceptance; at the request of the deal-making school board president, Mercy enters the elite fold posing as a Chinese heiress. Straining under judgmental eyes, Mercy resorts to mirthful improvisations, even a fake tea ceremony during which she beseeches (in Cantonese), “‘may I not make a pigeon egg of myself.’”
Mercy’s approval-seeking attempts have mixed results and prove short-lived, as the massive earthquake levels San Francisco on April 18. St. Clare’s is destroyed, forcing the headmistress to relocate her charges to Golden Gate Park until help arrives. Mercy’s “bossy cheeks” – an authoritative streak her fortuneteller mother fully recognized – ensures that this “mere Chinese girl” will not wallow in worry, and instead she takes charge with ingenious tenacity and empathic leadership. Her St. Clare’s education might have been truncated, but she “picked up something better”: true friends.
Stacey Lee, a fourth-generation Californian with roots in Mercy’s San Francisco Chinatown, again turns back time in this follow-up to her acclaimed 2015 debut, Under a Painted Sky, also inspired by her Wild West ancestry. Her “Author’s Second Note If You’re Still Reading” reveals the “doubtful” details of Mercy’s adventures, but underscores “the power of what could be true,” reminding her audience that creating our own stories is akin to “mak[ing] our own magic.”
What happens to the St. Clare’s girls proves to be an illuminating microcosm of the world outside their collapsed gates: “In the wake of disaster,” Lee notes, “old divides fell away … Strangers collaborated … without regard to class distinctions, race, or creed.” Ever the engaging storyteller, Lee enhances that authentic history with intertwined narratives of longing, first love, unlikely bonds, familial loss, multi-generational alliances and more. Outrun the Moon may present a century-old experience, but Lee ensures that modern teens will find an absorbing reading experience right now.
Shelf Talker: Stacey Lee’s second historical novel introduces a headstrong Chinatown teen whose “bossy cheeks” help her – and many others – survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Readers: Young Adult