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.