Trigger Warning: Death of an animal, racism, hate crimes, death of children
For the “book about a natural disaster” category of the Book Riot Reading Challenge I read Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee.
The book is set in San Francisco in the year 1906. It follows 15-year-old Mercy Wong, a second generation Chinese American who lives with her parents and younger brother Jack. Mercy’s parents own a laundry business and she is determined to find a way to help them be more financially stable and to leave the business that is ruining her family’s health. She gets her break in the form of a businessman who agrees to sponsor her stay at a prestigious girl’s school in exchange for her securing business dealings for him in Chinatown. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mercy is able to broker the deal and begins pursuing what she hopes will be a life changing education for her family. But being the only Chinese American in a school full of privileged, white girls and the unexpected catastrophe of an earthquake will push Mercy farther than she thought possible and force her to uncover hidden strength.
Lee does not shy away from depicting the racism faced by Chinese Americans in the early 20th century. It is a thread that follows Mercy through her experiences in the book. She also shows the sexism within and without her cultural community, allowing the reader to witness the many barriers Mercy faces in her quest to secure a stable future for her family. Mercy is given some allies in the school, but even they have their biases that they have to put aside or confront before they can be her friend. It’s important that readers, specifically YA readers as this book is marketed to, understand these barriers and are able to identify the many ways institutional racism still exists in our society.
I was surprised that I had to get almost halfway through the book before the natural disaster occurred. I’m happy, though, that the author gave us time to get a sense of Mercy’s life and relationships. The reader cares about her family and her friendships and her plans. And then everything is taken from her and the reader and Mercy have to pick through what’s left to determine what life will become when everything you’ve worked for feels irrelevant. The writing was poignant and well paced. Lee shows how horrible, traumatic events can bring people together who would never have associated before, but also how this will never be the case for some people. It’s important to recognize both of these things are true and that it isn’t as simple as The Human Race all being in it for each other when the chips are down. Allies and friends are important, but Mercy has to be cautious in who she trusts and that’s treated with the respect and understanding it deserves.
I almost cried a couple of times in the book. The writing is really good and even though multiple horrific and tragic things occur, Lee still manages to end the book on an upward note. Mercy has hope for her future and even with all of the challenges she will continue to face, both the reader and the protagonist know that she will find a way through. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in early 20th century American history, especially as it pertains to the treatment of Chinese immigrants and the barriers of sexism for women of all races with specific attention paid to the unique positions of non-white women facing sexism.