Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

I have a number of things to get done, and you are quite obviously someone who gets things done.” (p. 346-347)

As I mentioned earlier, Stacey Lee’s Outrun the Moon has my new favourite protagonist, Mercy Wong, THE most indomitable, march into your heart and take no prisoners young woman I’ve had the pleasure of reading about since Prunella Gentleman of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Mercy is bold, determined, a loving sister, and a staunch friend. She is a force of nature.

Which is fortunate, since Outrun the Moon is set in San Francisco, 1906, when another force of nature went to work in the city: plate tectonics.

But the quake is only half the story. Determined to become a wealthy businesswoman and armed with a plan, not to mention a well-read copy of The Book for Business-Minded Women, Mercy finangles (read: bribes and negotiates) her way into the prestigious and whites-only St. Clare’s School for Girls. Her goal: to graduate with the education and connections she needs to set up a business selling Chinese herbs to white customers. Mercy is absolutely set on providing for her family so that her six year old brother, Jack, whose lungs never developed properly thanks to the practical effects of anti-Chinese policies, won’t have to work himself to death with sixteen-hour shifts, like their Ba is doing. To Mercy, Jack is everything. She hates to leave him and home, but if pain now means an assured future, Mercy can stand the separation. Mercy and Jack’s relationship is one of the most glowing portions of a book full of believable, sturdy relationships.

Jack attaches himself to me. “Why do you have to go?”

My chest tightens, and I suddenly wonder if the cost of attending St. Clare’s is too dear after all. […] I will be missing out on a whole springtime of Jack’s life, and nothing can replace that.

But one day, when I can buy him more than the bones of the ox, it will be worth it. (p. 63)

These relationships are convincing because the characters in them are so clearly delineated. Even within each close-knit family, different ideas, goals, and perspectives push against each other. Sometimes within the same person, as with Mercy, who is shaped by both her fortunetelling mother’s traditional beliefs, and her launderer father’s Christianity. When these backgrounds and beliefs clash, sparks fly off the page. The most overt example is the antagonism between Mercy and Elodie, an influential French-American with whose parents Mercy makes the deal that gets her into St. Clare’s. But there are many cases of conflict enlivening the narrative, sometimes between inimical forces (the extraordinary Francesca and her disgusting fiance), sometimes between powerhouses who rub each other the wrong way (Mercy and the headmistress of St. Clare’s), and sometimes between people who care very much for each other (Mercy’s friend/beloved Tom and his father).

We both walked differently back then, our dreams making us tall and sure-footed. She had her mother’s proud nose, and I, Ma’s bossy cheeks.

Who are we now, without mothers to define us? (p. 274)

There are, equally, extraordinary friendships and familial bonds. Tom, Francesca, Katie, Harry stand out, as do Mercy’s parents and Toms’ father. I particularly loved watching the relationships between the St. Clare’s girls unfold after the quake, and witnessing Tom’s father act as the uncle he is hailed as (Ah-Suk) to Mercy and to the St. Clare’s students as well as and to the surviving remnant of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community.

The soldier holding the gun frowns. I should let the matter go so we can be on our way. If they discover that we’re loaded with loot, we might be their next victims. But it rankles me how quickly he pulled the trigger. It’s making it hard to breathe.

How easily life can end on a misunderstanding. How fragile we all are, like spider silk on a branch of thorns. (p. 265)

Make no mistake, this book is all about community. Inasmuch as Mercy is an outstanding individual, she is also and just as much a part and an active member of various communities which *slight spoiler* she draws together in the wake of disaster.

“You have us now.” (p. 364)

I loved that everybody has a backstory. I admired how Mercy’s experiences showed the casual racism she and millions of others experience(d) as part of their daily life, and both how these affected her unavoidably and how she responds to work around unjust limitations.

A part of me understands the need to keep order, but another part worries that we are being led to fear the wrong things.

It’s just like Chinatown and all the laws passed to contain us. We were never the enemy. The enemy was our country’s own fear. (p. 360)

Mercy’s anger and grief were spot on, and her networks of kin and friends – and their suffering and determination – were a delight to read.

“You moved a mountain,” Tom says quietly.

“I wasn’t the only one with the shovel.”

“No. But you were the one with the ‘beautiful thought.'” (p. 382)

“Close your mouth, we are not goldfish.” (p. 344)