YA Book Review: Outrun the Moon
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The following review of Outrun the Moon (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books, May 24, 2016) by Stacey Lee is from Food, Fitness & Fiction Contributing Editor Amber Lee (pictured below).
Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:
San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty of Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.
On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. Now she’s forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?
From the first sentence, Outrun the Moon blew all my expectations out of the water. The opening of the novel is gorgeous and pitch perfect, immediately establishing Mercy Wong’s setting and personality as well as introducing pivotal characters. Lee’s previous novel, Under a Painted Sky–also about a Chinese-American girl in a historical setting–had already set the bar so high, so I was surprised to love this book as much as I did.
I have to admit that I am somewhat biased; as an Asian-American girl myself, I find it difficult to see myself reflected culturally in the novels I love. It was deeply satisfying for me to feel to find similarities between myself and the protagonist–everything from having a little brother to also hating the number four and calling porridge juk. Lee managed to portray Orientalist racism both with humor and unflinching realism, bringing to life a pervasive attitude that was an overpowering force in Mercy’s time. The yellow peril was depicted with such nuance that it could show relatively harmless stereotypes and institutional violence or criminalization as sides of the same coin. For every hilariously botched tea ceremony where Mercy flails her arms around and “dusts away spirits,” there were hundreds of people like me regarded as savage barbarians and beaten for false accusations.
The premise had me hooked from the start, as a lover of immigrant narratives and San Francisco. The setting feels both familiar and fascinatingly foreign, the inner workings of Chinatown meticulously researched but portrayed with a subtle touch that gave real gravity and hominess to it. There is so much tangible love for Chinatown in the way it was written—even as Mercy was trying to leave it–in the descriptions of neighborhood gossip and their working class lives. There’s a lot of detail in Lee’s descriptions of San Francisco–from the architectural styles to which groups of people live on what streets. The details give Mercy knowledge and street smarts while also grounding the setting even further. Unfortunately, the descriptions of St. Clare’s are not as tangible, but what is lacking in setting is made up for in characters.
Mercy Wong is undeniably the driving force of the novel. She takes control of her own narrative at every turn, not letting any life events just happen to her–even the San Francisco Earthquake. Her business minded thinking is refreshing as well as fun to watch. Ambition and strategizing are central to her character; that, and her kindness, stay strong even in the face of disaster. She’s still the same bold, scheming person whether she’s bribing her way into a school or stealing from a wrecked grocery store.
The girls that surround her complement these aspects of Mercy’s personality while maintaining distinct personalities of their own. Though every St. Clare’s girl is given individuality, the standouts are Francesca and Elodie. While Francesca relates to Mercy’s immigrant status with her own Italian family and is as family minded and kind as Mercy is, Elodie shares Mercy’s calculating nature and initiative. All the girls experienced different kinds of trauma and had different kinds of loss and PTSD regarding the earthquake.
Though the actual earthquake and the shaky plot just before it could have been executed with more impact, the following emotional fallout was written viscerally and made me cry. Twice. A lot of investment in the plot was lost before the earthquake because I already knew it was coming and therefore nothing before it would really matter as much. The reveal to Mercy’s classmates that she is not actually a Chinese heiress was very anticlimactic, and the immediate earthquake seemed a little unreal. Mercy’s anguish at losing her parents was so real and intimate, the sense of loss even greater because of how well developed Mercy is as a character. The plot from there on was a bit predictable, but still satisfying.
Overall, Outrun the Moon is a gorgeous, heartfelt novel with a perspective on history rare in young adult fiction. The prose was beautiful throughout with an amazing central character and poignant depictions of grief against a vivid historical backdrop.
Amber Lee, a high school senior from Irvine, California, is an editor for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
To learn more about Lee, visit her website.
And here are some other reviews of Outrun the Moon:
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