Mercy Wong of Chinatown in San Francisco has what her fortune-telling mother calls “bossy cheeks”: she is someone who gets things done. And what she wants to do is gain entrance to the prestigious St. Clare’s School for Girls. Once she elevates her own circumstances and becomes a successful businesswoman, she plans to lift the rest of her family out of poverty, so that her father doesn’t have to work as a laundryman eighteen hours a day and Jack, her weak-lunged younger brother, won’t be condemned to follow in the family business.
St. Clare’s accepts white, wealthy students only, but this doesn’t deter her. With The Book for Business-Minded Women as her guide, Mercy wangles admission into St. Clare’s through a mixture of deal-brokering and bribery. In return for arranging for a wealthy chocolatier to expand his business into Chinatown, Mercy will be allowed to attend, posing as a Chinese heiress to deflect suspicion.
Once she’s in, Mercy faces a host of new challenges, from hostile classmates to suspicious teachers. Refusing to back down, Mercy makes friends among her fellow students (as well as enemies) and doubles down on her mission. All that ends on April 18, 1906, the day a catastrophic earthquake hits San Francisco, destroying both the school and Mercy’s home in Chinatown. Now with the girls of St. Clare’s taking refuge in a public park and dependent on the army for help, what can Mercy do, with her plan and entire life entirely upended? It’s up to her find out just how far her strength, determination, and “bossy” cheeks can take her as the city burns in the earthquake’s aftermath.
Outrun the Moon is in many ways similar to Stacey Lee’s first book, a YA historical fiction novel titled Under a Painted Sky. Lee is skilled at writing narrative- and character-centric historical fiction. The setting and historicity are more in the background compared to other historical fiction novels but are still integral to who the characters are, the choices they make, and their personal worlds in which they make them.
This novel belongs unquestionably to Mercy Wong—from the outset she defies stereotypes in and out of narrative. As one of the very few Chinese girls in Chinatown, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banning immigration from China, Mercy’s expected path would be to marry rather than complete her education all the way to the eighth grade and then look for opportunities to gain more. She is brash, bossy, and has a can-do attitude and a wry sense of of humor that brings levity even in dark moments. She’s impulsive enough to look before leaping (the first chapter opens with Mercy getting herself stranded mid-air in a hot air balloon) and savvy enough to wheedle and bargain with just about anyone to get things done. I absolutely love that Mercy’s role model is a wealthy, Texan businesswoman who wrote a book aimed at other women so they could be successful entrepreneurs too.
While the first half of Outrun the Moon is engaging, the story doesn’t feel as though it truly gets going until the morning the earthquake hits. Which isn’t to say that Mercy’s various trials and escapades aren’t important to the story. However it was somewhat difficult to fully invest in Mercy’s determination to succeed at St. Clare’s and keep up her subterfuge as a foreign Chinese heiress when, as a reader, you already know the earthquake is going to demolish the school and with it her plan. It helped to read the first half of Outrun the Moon as set-up for Mercy herself, her family, Chinatown and the greater city of San Francisco, and the students and teachers at St. Clare’s, for which the characterization and world-building pay off after the earthquake and you then see how badly the catastrophe affects everything and everyone from before.
Speaking of characters, favorites of mine included energetic, country-bred Katie and tall, solemn chef extraordinaire Francesca—both of whom are students at St. Clare’s—and Ah-Suk, the apothecary in Chinatown and the father of Tom, Mercy’s best friend. All of Stacey Lee’s characters have unexpected depths to them, and even disagreeable figures like Elodie and Headmistress Crouch are given their moments to shine and surprise.
Outrun the Moon tells a fun, heartwarming story, and it does so through its roots in the discriminatory, impoverished conditions Chinese Americans lived in prior to the San Francisco earthquake, and for several decades afterward. It’s a tale of pride and love for family, community, and heritage, all of which Mercy draws strength from at St. Clare’s and in the aftermath of the earthquake. It’s also the story of forging a new world through hope, perseverance, and forging relationships across racial, ethnic, and class lines. When a city gets knocked and burned down, it’s a time to mourn and grieve, but it can also be an opportunity to create a better world than the one that existed before.
Lastly, I wanted to pay my respects to the last couple lines of Stacy Lee’s author’s note, which addresses some of the improbable instances in the book regarding their historicity:
However, history is a general overview, and overlooks the story, the possibility of the individual. If we are confined by the strict margins of what is “known” to be true, we would never explore the power of what could be true. We would deny our ability to create our own stories, to make our own magic.
This is something I have been trying to put into words myself, for a long time—the power and necessity of the imagination to tell stories that exist beyond what we know to be true in order expand horizons and imagine ourselves and other people as more than we currently are. I believe this is especially important when it comes to writing diverse stories featuring marginalized protagonists and/or communities. Realistic stories are necessary and important, but there is also room, and need, for those that dare go go beyond that, to place those marginalized people and communities different kinds of stories, so that readers can read and know they can be more than what they are. Every person can always be more, or different than what they are. More than that, everyone deserves to be.
I very much enjoyed reading Outrun the Moon with its fantastic storytelling and the wonderfulness that is Mercy Wong, Stacey Lee’s writing, and the way she approaches historical fiction as a means of writing Chinese characters into history, in order to put them in kinds of stories you wouldn’t otherwise see in published novels. If you’re in the mood for YA historical fiction that’s strong on narrative and character, I definitely recommend Stacey Lee.