“Outrun the Moon” by Stacey Lee
Reviewed by Ed Lengel
As Outrun the Moon opens, fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong has unintentionally hitched a solo, out-of-control ride on the air balloon of her friend, Tom. Mercy, it seems, has a penchant for getting herself into trouble, and only after a breakneck journey over the countryside outside of San Francisco does she return safely to earth. And, it’s there–on the earth–that the remainder of this story unfolds, until a brief return to the air at its very end—and that’s unfortunate, for Outrun the Moon offers the grimmest of perspectives on life in 1906 America.
Mercy has been raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her parents, whom she calls Ba and Ma, are immigrants; her father runs a laundry, and her mother is a highly respected fortune-teller. She also has a six-year-old brother, Jack, doted on by everyone, because his lungs were permanently damaged by an early vaccination against bubonic plague. Mercy loves her family, but dreams of becoming a businesswoman–or maybe– of spending her life with Tom. But many obstacles lay ahead, because Mercy’s world offers scant sympathy for her dreams.
Early 20th century San Francisco provides only a few opportunities for its thousands of Chinese residents. Segregated and persecuted by the city’s white citizens—including even recent European immigrants—they live at the margins of society, but Mercy, who is fantastically ambitious, nevertheless manages to con her way into the prestigious St. Clare’s School for Girls by promising its chief proprietor a chocolate-selling concession in Chinatown. Predictably, the school is run by a cruelly strict headmistress, Mrs. Crouch (or “Mrs. Grouch,” as the girls call her); just as likely, the white schoolgirls are skittish about having a Chinese student among them. But Mercy is no Pollyanna, and she counters their contempt, robustly.
Overall, there is little to like about St. Clare’s. Mercy hopes that a formal education will jettison her into a business career, but the school offers little other than lessons in deportment, home economics, and French. Mrs. Crouch, meanwhile, is a staunch believer in savage corporal punishment, and in almost no time, she victimizes Mercy. Everyone seems to have a dark secret–even the school’s priest. Even the school bully, the privileged Elodie, taunts Mercy, while the other girls, seen through Mercy’s eyes, appear mean, foolish, or deeply flawed; occasionally, points of virtue emerge, as some of the girls become Mercy’s friends–sort of.
Just as Mercy has clawed her way into a semblance of acceptance, Mrs. Crouch calls for her expulsion; then, suddenly, on April 18th an earthquake tears through the school and the city.
Stacey Lee is a superb writer, who depicts brilliantly, the shock and horror of the disaster as it unfolds; much of the city is wrecked or going up in flames. In keeping with the sad display of humanity that has already emerged, the destruction releases more of the worst in people. Mercy, who endures tragedy within her family, encounters mostly prejudice, cruelty, and greed as she wanders the ruined city, witnessing only occasional bursts of kindness. Even the Army soldiers, when they arrive, seem more interested in brutalizing the population than in protecting it.
To this dark wilderness that was San Francisco—and evidently America—in 1906, Lee tacks on an improbably upbeat ending. Some characters are rescued; others are redeemed, and new and unlikely friendships are formed. Overall, Outrun the Moon heavily exudes resentment and disgust toward the past, and the people who were unfortunate enough to have lived through it. Instead of regarding history with curiosity, the reader feels uncomfortable and eager to turn away from the benighted past–in favor of the present—if that’s any better! One wonders if an equally unvarnished, but more compassionate approach might have fulfilled the promise of the lofty opening.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.
Outrun the Moon
by Stacey Lee
400 pp., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016