Lee, Stacey. Outrun the Moon. Putnam, 2016. 391 pages. ISBN: 978-0-399-17541-1. Click here to purchase.
“Licking her fingers, Ma tucks my chin-length hair behind my ears. Her fingers drift to my bossy cheeks and press, a not-so-subtle reminder to keep my authoritative bumps in rein.”
Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong lives in San Francisco Chinatown in 1906. Mercy is smart, independent, and determined, qualities her mother nurtured even as she cautions Mercy to take care in the world. But Mercy may be overreaching in trying get into St. Clare’s, an all-White, private girls’ boarding school. Still, like any good businesswoman—and that’s exactly what she plans on being—Mercy has a plan. She offers to set up a meeting with the Chinese Benevolent Association for a business owner on the school’s governing board, knowing the man would like to expand his chocolate business into Chinatown. In exchange, she gains his support of her entry to the school.
Mercy arrives at St. Clare’s a social and cultural outsider. She isn’t welcomed warmly. The lack of friendly reception at the school doesn’t surprise Mercy, or even necessarily bother her; she’s less interested in friendship than securing her family’s financial future by getting a good education.
Then the earthquake hits.
Mercy and her schoolmates become essential to one another’s survival as they escape the school and make their way to one of the city parks where people are seeking refuge. Terrified for her family, Mercy tries to go home to Chinatown, but it soon becomes clear the news is grim: Chinatown has been devastated. She is not alone in grief and worry among her classmates. But figuring out how to survive is paramount and the girls have no choice but to work together. In doing so, they eventually make the decision to help others, too, sharing the food they find and the companionship they are beginning to rely on with other refugees. Distinctions of class and race become, briefly, meaningless, and a few real friendships begin to form.
Outrun the Moon is a vivid work of historical fiction, its rich sensory details making time and place come alive. But it’s just as richly detailed when it comes to the cultural and social context of the story. One of the most striking aspects of the book is the way that racism is presented as a fact of Mercy’s life. It doesn’t weigh down the narrative, but it also can’t be ignored by the reader. It’s in assumptions and attitudes Mercy’s faces; it’s in direct comments made to her (“The board of education provided your people with a public education.”) and quieter asides she overhears. It’s in the very fact that St. Clare’s is considered off-limits to her, as well as in countless other moments and elements of the storytelling.
Yet in spite of the racism, the hardship, and tragic events that are part of the telling, Outrun the Moon is a book full of optimism. This balance—of authenticity, honesty, and optimism—broadens its appeal. Middle school readers drawn to stories about strong, spirited girls or who liked boarding school-type stories when younger will not be disappointed, but neither will those who look to works of historical fiction for a generally truthful accounting of the times in which they are set.
But Outrun the Moon is historical fiction, and author Stacey Lee includes an informative author’s note (two of them, actually!) acknowledging where she took liberties, and where she didn’t. There was, indeed, a coming together in the aftermath of the earthquake “without regard to class distinctions, race, or creed. It was a time of goodwill and inclusiveness. It did not last forever.” She states it is unlikely, however, that a girl in Chinatown would have gained admittance to a White school. “However, history is a general overview, and overlooks the story, the possibility of the individual.”
The possibility of Mercy Wong is one that readers today can revel in.
Reviewed by Megan Schliesman