My Summary: Life isn’t easy for a Chinese American girl in 1906. However, Mercy Wong doesn’t let that stop her from getting what she wants. Using her wits, she strikes a bargain that gains her entry into the elite school St. Clare’s. However, the difficulties she faces are a bit more than she bargained for. Then, an earthquake strikes, and all of a sudden the social order of San Francisco is turned on its head.
I didn’t quite know how much I needed historical fiction about a Chinese American protagonist until I read this book. Beyond just having Asian Americans visible in American history, we need their voices in the realm of historical fiction so that they become a part of America’s collective cultural imaginary. This book takes a wonderful step toward realizing that goal.
In terms of worldbuilding, Stacey Lee, masterfully recreates her fictionalized version of 1906 San Francisco. The sights, sounds, the texture of the setting are vivid and believable. I felt fully immersed in Mercy’s world as I followed her adventures.
A critical part of the worldbuilding for this novel was tied to the subjective worldview of the protagonist. Mercy, as a Chinese American girl, occupies a position on the margins of American society. Although it alienates her from the mainstream culture, it also offers an unique alternative perspective and critique on that very culture. Writing this novel from Mercy’s point of view decenters whiteness in a narrative that is traditionally white-centric.
This decentering of whiteness is particularly notable given the setting, both the place and the time. San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown and probably had the largest population of Chinese people in the nation at the time. In 1906 and the years leading up to and following it, Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism were a strong force in the white American consciousness. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (all but stopped Chinese immigration to the US), the Alien Land Law of 1887 (denied Asian immigrants the right to own land through racially coded language), the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 (prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers unless they qualified under a few exceptions for their profession), and other similar laws had all been enacted to render Chinese immigrants second-class citizens (actually, not even citizens, as they did not have the right to naturalize until the mid-1900s). On top of these legal acts of discrimination, outright violence against Chinese people was rampant. Mobs of white people burned down parts of Chinatowns and lynched Chinese people.
Chinatown, in the eyes of white Americans, was a nightmarish place: opium addiction, gambling, prostitution, filth and disease, sexual perversion–you name any vice, and you can bet it was attributed to Chinese immigrants.
That is an outsider’s perspective, however. Mercy is an insider. She calls the place home and is familiar with its ins and outs, its peoples and rhythms. Her perspective humanizes and individualizes what was formerly a monolithic specter of the yellow peril.
A useful concept to draw upon regarding Mercy’s perspective is that of the “double consciousness.” This phrase was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to refer to the ways Black Americans lived in a white supremacist society, with their psyches split between their own viewpoint and that of the demeaning gaze of society at large, making it hard for them to reconcile their identities. Mercy also experiences a kind of double consciousness. She is knows intimately her authentic Chinese culture but is also hyperaware of how outsiders stereotype her people. Her double consciousness is sometimes a burden, but she also cleverly takes advantage of it.
In order to legitimize her presence at St. Clare’s, she adopts the false persona of a rich Chinese heiress recently arrived from China. In fact, she was born and raised in San Francisco, but almost nobody at the school is aware of that. Knowing quite well their ignorance of and their assumptions about Chinese culture, she invents bizarre cultural customs to satisfy the curiosity of teachers and students who wish to learn the ways of an “exotic” foreigner. And the white people eat it all up, leading to endless humor.
Mercy is a great protagonist. True to her “bossy cheeks” label, she is witty, feisty, and impertinent in all the best ways. It is both a weakness and a strength, for it gets her into trouble as much as it helps her get out of it or toward a goal. She takes risks and takes falls but keeps her stubborn chin up and moving forward no matter what. She is more than a survivor, she is an ambitious visionary who challenges the horizons of what is doable.
In addition to a lovable heroine, Outrun the Moon has a cast of distinct and dynamic supporting characters, from Mercy’s childhood friend Tom, to the white girls in her class, to the stuffy headmistress of St. Clare’s. They have their own stories and their own development.
In particular, the positive female friendships stood out to me. It would have been easy to go the Mean Girls route and have Mercy’s classmates all be petty, superficial, and bigoted idiots who serve as a foil to a Not-Like-Other-Girls protagonist, but the supporting cast of female characters are as well-developed as Mercy herself, and their bonding experiences made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. (Friendship stories are the best.)
While the romance was a very small part of the book, it was still a nice addition. Tom is sweet, ambitious like Mercy but humble, and the two of them make a great duo. He understands Mercy’s “bossy cheeks” personality and embraces and appreciates it as it is. He is an endearing character.
Although the backdrop to the main conflicts of this book is a terrible disaster, the tone of the novel is optimistic and life-affirming. Times of crisis tend to either bring out the worst in people or the best in people. Here, the latter dominates. Prejudice and divisions are discarded in favor of cooperation and solidarity, sending a message of hope for a fractured society.
The book is timely considering current events. Hate crimes are on the rise, and regressive policy plans threaten the lives and well-being of marginalized folks across the nation. Now is the time to work in solidarity to do what we can to protect one another.
Recommendation: I highly recommend it! It’s suitable for middle grade readers as well as young adult readers.