Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Outrun The Moon by Stacey Lee

Outrun the Moon is a fictional account of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city of San Francisco. At 5:12 am on April 18, a huge earthquake with its epicenter near San Francisco hit the city. The northern 477 kilometers of the San Andreas fault was ruptured. The city experienced strong shaking for 45 to 60 seconds. However, the worst was to come. The earthquake ignited fires which burned through the city for three days. Hundreds of people were burned alive in the rubble of the buildings.

Outrun The Moon begins several days before the earthquake. Fifteen year old Mercy Wong (Mei-Si) lives at thirty-three Clay Street in Chinatown, San Francisco with her ba (father), Wong Wai Kwok, her mother Lei Ha who is the undisputed best fortune-teller in Chinatown and her eight year old brother Jack. Her ba is Catholic but her mother practices a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism. Mercy's brother has poor lungs and has delayed speech because of the bubonic plague inoculations forced on the Chinese who were blamed for the recent bubonic plague outbreaks in the city.

Mercy's best friend is Tom a member of the Chinese community whose father expects him to be a herbalist. However Tom is interested in flying and has built a hot-air balloon he calls Tom's Floating Island. He wanted to be part of the Army Balloon Corps but when that disbanded, Tom became interested in the new machine developed by the Wright brothers. After a short unexpected balloon ride, Tom gives Mercy a special herb, chuen pooi (also called Fritillaria bulb) used in Chinese medicine for colds and coughs. Mercy is thrilled because this is going to be her family's "ticket to a good life."

Mercy plans to use the herb to bargain her way into a girl's school using her "bossy cheeks" and her business savvy gleaned from Mrs. Lowry's book, The Book For Business-Minded Women. She was given this book by the mortician she used to work for. Taking Jack with her they visit Chocolatier Du Lac where Mercy tells Madame Du Lac that she wishes to speak with her husband who is president of the board that runs St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy wishes to be admitted to the school and she hopes to bribe Madame Du Lac with a rare herb, chuen pooi which "is also known to fade freckles and lighten the complexion." Tom's father refused to sell the herb to Madame Du Lac. Madame Du Lac agrees to obtain Mercy a meeting with her husband after she is given the bulb, but Mercy tells her she will tell her how to prepare it only after she meets with Monsieur Du Lac.

Mercy arrives at St. Clare's on Monday determined to bargain her way into the school. Her ba runs a laundry business and the work is hard. Mercy does not want her brother Jack with his weak lungs to inherit such a life.  Having graduated from the Oriental Public School, higher education is closed to Mercy because she is Chinese. Mercy hopes to gain admission to St. Clare's in the hopes that when she graduates she will be able to start her own business, supplying Chinese herbal teas to Americans. Her dream is to purchase a house in the wealthy Nob Hill area of San Francisco so Jack and her family can live there.

At St. Clare's Mercy sees Elodie, Monsieur Du Lac's daughter whom she recognizes from the Du Lac's chocolate shop.  Monsieur Du Lac informs Mercy that it is not possible for her to be admitted to the school but Mercy persistently argues that publicly funded schools are required by law to admit Chinese students. Mercy offers to help Monsieur Du Lac sell his chocolates in Chinatown and that she can arrange for him to go before the Benevolent Association which manages all affairs in Chinatown. In return she wants him to allow her to attend St. Clare's on a full scholarship for three years. Monsieur Du Lac refuses and instead offers her to attend for three months in exchange for not only getting the hearing but securing him the right to sell his chocolates in Chinatown. If she does not her attendance at St. Clare's will be revoked.  He tells her she will pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

That night Monsieur Du Lac's car arrives to pick up Mercy and take her to St. Clare's.From the neck down she looks like a St. Clare's girl with her navy dress, black stockings and boots and her felt hat, all courtesy of Monsieur Du Lac. Her ma warns her that it will take time to fit in, Jack gives Mercy his Indian head penny, but Ba is not there as he is working in the laundry. On her way to St. Clare's, William, the Du Lac's chauffeur stops to pick up Elodie Du Lac who informs Mercy that her father has told her she is to pretend that Mercy is a Chinese heiress.

At the school Mercy meets Headmistress Crouch who is amazed at her proficiency in English and who immediately begins checking Mercy's credentials.Crouch informs Mercy that she will be meeting Monsieur Du Lac on Friday. To Mercy's disappointment she discovers she will be studying French, comportment and embroidery rather than commerce or economics. After correcting Mercy's posture and telling her more of the rules she lets her know that she will be rooming with Elodie Du Lac.

At St. Clare's Mercy meets Harriet Wincher, Katie Quinley who is from Red Rock Texas, and twins Ruby and Minnie Mae Beauregard from South Carolina, Francesca Bellini and Father Goodwin. After Mass Mercy attends her comportment class taught by Mr. Waterstone who informs her that he has a special interest in cultures of the Far East. Watersone question Mercy about Chinese customs and asks her to demonstrate a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Mercy, not having ever performed a traditional ceremony makes a ridiculous ceremony up on the spot.

Mercy and Elodie struggle to get along as roommates. After dinner and Good Friday Mass, Mercy prepares for her meeting with the Benevolent Association, coming up with the idea that the Du Lac's chocolates could be marketed to the Chinese as an funeral offering to the ancestors. Elodie informs Mercy that she will also be attending the meeting, but the Du Lac chauffeur, William informs the two girls that the meeting will have to be rescheduled. Furious, Mercy knows that she must show up at the meeting and manages to convince Elodie to stand in as proxy for her father, as she will someday be involved in his chocolate business.

The meeting before the Chinese Benevolent Association is almost a disaster, as Mercy presents her idea. Her friend Tom Gunn, whose father is a herbal doctor, is against allowing the chocolate to be sold in Chinatown for health reasons. However Tom saves the day and the Benevolent Committee approves the selling of the chocolate in Chinatown. On her way home, Mercy stops to visit her family but her little brother Jack is asleep. Unbeknownst to her, it is the last time Mercy will see her mother and Jack. On the way back Elodie who has clued in to Mercy and Tom's mutual interest, tells Mercy that she will make Tom a consultant on the selling of chocolate to Chinatown, but Mercy tells her this will not be possible.

On Easter Sunday night, Mercy sneaks out of St. Clare's and meets Tom at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Tom tells her that he is leaving Tuesday at dawn for Seattle to work for a man who is building a plane. He tells a shocked Mercy not to wait for him and she, not wishing to dishonour him tells him he deserves to follow his dream. But inside she is crushed at Tom's decision.

The next days see Elodie bully Mercy and attempt to expose her. When Mercy reads the girls fortunes during embroidery class, Elodie informs the teacher, Mrs. Mitchell. The class is interrupted by Crouch who announces that two girls were seen leaving the grounds the previous night. One is discovered to be Katie Quinley who lost her shawl in the garden. Katie refuses to tell who the other girl was, but not wanting Katie to be punished, Mercy admits to being the other girl. She is whipped, sent to confess to Father Goodwin who assigns her penance to weed the herbal garden and made to sleep in the attic. Headmistress Crouch also informs Mercy that she has sent correspondence to China to determine if Mercy is a legitimate Chinese heiress.

The next morning the girls are assigned to do their own laundry because Mercy's uniform was not turned inside out. Mercy uses her knowledge of laundry to quickly get her and her friends, Ruby, Minnie Mae, Katie and Francesca's laundry finished. Elodie is furious when she discovers what has happened and the two girls get into a brawl with Elodie revealing Mercy's true identity. Headmistress Crouch pulls Mercy from classes and assigns her to work in the kitchen until Monsieur Du Lac returns from his trip. As Mercy is pondering her immediate future in the garden, an earthquake strikes, destroying the school and changing Mercy's life forever.


Outrun The Moon is an entertaining piece of historical fiction that provides readers with a snapshot of life in early 1900's America. The novel is centered around the devastating earthquake of 1906 which destroyed the city of San Francisco. Lee devotes a considerable amount or the novel to life before the earthquake - the first nineteen chapters which set the stage for the disaster by describing life in 1906 San Francisco. The city at this time was home to approximately 15,000 Chinese. Chinese were prevented from immigrating to America by the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, renewed in 1892 and made a permanent law in 1902. Many Chinese came to America during the Gold Rush years and were also laborers on the building of the railroad across the continent. However, they were gradually forced out of these jobs and many settled in cities like San Francisco where they worked in restaurants and laundries. The effect of the Chinese Exclusion Act was to prevent the Chinese men who were already in America from bringing over their families. Chinese living in San Francisco in 1906 experienced intense discrimination.

Lee attempts to portray the racial discrimination Chinese experienced in her novel through the main character, Mercy Wong. Mercy, despite being born in America, is only able to attend the Chinese public school and there is no opportunity for her to further her education by attending high school. When Mercy first arrives at St. Clares, she overhears the girls talking about her. Not only do they have little understanding of her culture, but their comments are derogatory.
" 'You suppose she speaks English?' The talk continues.
'The ones here hardly speak any at all. Mother says they're not bright enough.'
Someone snorts. 'The girls in Chinatown hardly need English. They're all soiled.' The speaker lowers her voice, but I catch the word just the same."
Lee also teaches her readers about some of the problems facing the Chinese community in the early 1900's San Francisco. Chinatown was located on prime land in the city, land that wealthy white business owners wanted. The Chinese community recognizes this and refuse to sell or to be driven away. When Mercy meets with the Benevolent Association she feels that the Chinese community should be less protectionist and more open to working with others so that they can gain the same rights as white Americans.

In her Author's Note at the back of the novel, Lee indicates that immediately after the earthquake, people of every race and class worked together to help one another. This is effectively portrayed in the novel as all the girls of St. Clare, led by Mercy Wong, work together, setting up a kitchen to feed the homeless survivors. In this way they bring together many different people in the city. Mercy begins to realize that what Mr. Mortimer, the mortician told her - that death is the great equalizer is true. Mercy notices that "some of the invisible walls are beginning to crack" between different people when a white woman offers a Sonoran woman and her child crackers. As the St. Clare girls struggle amongst the ruins of the city, Mercy experiences more freedom than she ever had before. Elodie, stripped of her friends, her mother dead and her father far away, is on equal footing with Mercy. Oliver Chance, a white man seems to show interest in Mercy as he and a friend help out in the park. When Francesca suggests that he is from a good family, Mercy remembers that as a rule, white people do not associate with Chinese. As she notes, "The trembler moved us in mysterious ways, shifting underlying assumptions about social rank and order. "

Mercy is a strong female character, whose faith in God is severely tested by the disaster. She states that her brother "Jack's birth proved to me that God exists." But with his death, "the sea is empty for me." She struggles with the unfairness of their deaths, that she should be comfortable "when Ma and Jack suffered such unspeakable deaths." No religion offers her comfort. "The ancestors have turned their backs on my family, even after all those offerings we made. And Ba's Christian God - the all caring, all powerful one - He has been the most disappointing of all. Though I am not speaking to Him anymore, I still plead with Him to let me find Ba soon. It's the least You can do."

From the disaster Mercy becomes aware of how fragile life is. "You expect certain things to always be there, like the bakery on the corner, or the boy you grew up with. But when the very ground can eat you alive without warning, what's to say the ocean won't dry up? Or the stars won't suddenly shut off? Nothing is forever." She wonders what has happened to her father and if Tom is even safe.

With Chinatown destroyed, and Jack gone, Mercy has lost her sense of purpose. Jack and her ma no longer need a big house, or an easier life, nor will they feel hunger again. Mercy struggles to accept what has happened and how her life has changed. "The stars wink, teasing me with the notion that this has all been some colossal joke. That I will wake up any second in the living room of our flat on Clay Street with the smell of pomelo in the air. But the universe never jokes. It is always profoundly, unflinchingly serious." To deal with her pain of loss, Mercy reaches out to those in need and organizes the kitchen to help others who have suffered.

It's unfortunate that Lee decided to present such a negative view of a Catholic priest in her novel, choosing to portray Father Goodwin as unfaithful to his vows of celibacy. No doubt there have been Catholic priests through the ages who broke their vows, but was it really necessary to portray a priest in this disparaging manner in a young adult novel? Especially when the main character, Mercy is a young Catholic girl struggling with her faith. It seems as though Lee succumbed to the current 21st century view that sees Catholic priests as abusers and pedophiles.

Overall Outrun the Moon is a well written historical novel. Mercy's voice is sometimes humorous and at other times thoughtful. Her wit provides much comic relief and makes her seem a realistic character who finds within herself the ability to weather adversity. Her indomitable spirit causes Headmistress Crouch to reassess her view of Mercy whom she now considers to be someone who gets things done. Supporting Mercy is a well developed cast of characters, each a bit different -  from the kindly Francesca, the spoiled rich girl Elodie to the crusty Headmistress Crouch. The novel takes its title from a phrase Mercy's mother tells her at the very beginning, that we cannot always control what happens in life, but we can view events with a different perspective. This is in reference to her telling Mercy that she has foreseen her own death. She reminds Mercy that she tells clients that they cannot change their destiny but they can change their perspective. " 'It is like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it. As it should be.' "

For more information on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake check out the United States Geological Survey's website. 

Book Details:

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.     2016
391 pp.

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