Tag: Stacey Lee

Outrun the Moon

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.inddby Stacey Lee

ISBN 978-0-399-17541-1

“The closer I am to someone’s grief, the closer I feel to my own. And that is a place with no doors and no windows. No escape at all.”

Mercy Wong is the ambitious daughter of a hard-working Chinese-American launderer and a famous fortune teller, trapped in San Francisco’s Chinatown with little hope of advancement now that she has finished all the available grades at the Oriental Public School. Never one to back down easily, Mercy contrives a plan to get herself a scholarship to St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the best private institutions in the city. But getting into the school is only half the battle, and when a historic earthquake strikes San Francisco in April 1906, all of Mercy’s plans are thrown aside, as she and her classmates struggle to survive in a city that is torn apart and burning.

In order to get into St. Clare’s, Mercy agrees to help the chocolatier Mr. du Lac get permission from the Chinese Benevolent Association for him to open a store in Chinatown. After striking this bargain, Mercy is forced to pose as a wealthy Chinese heiress, to help mute potential objections to her presence at the school. Having never been to China, Mercy must put on an act, drawing on what she can remember of her father’s stories of his childhood. Normally the novel would centre on the discovery of her deception, but lurking behind the threat of discovery is the reader’s knowledge that the great earthquake is imminent.

Outrun the Moon is full of juicy tidbits about the history of San Francisco, and Chinatown in particular. I ended up down a Google rabbit-hole only twelve pages into the book, after Stacey Lee referenced the forced inoculation of Chinatown residents following the bubonic plague outbreak that struck San Francisco in the early 1900s. Chinatown was particularly targeted, including a quarantine, and the eventual requirement that all residents of the neighbourhood be vaccinated. Many of these details are worked into the opening pages of the novel, and so it took me a while to really settle into the story, because I was constantly being caught up by the fascinating rabbit trails Lee only hints at in the text. Lee also includes quite a bit of information about Chinese rituals and superstitions, including Mercy’s aversion to the number four.

While it is primarily about Mercy’s ambitions, there is a slight romantic subplot to Outrun the Moon, as Mercy hopes to marry Tom, a doctor’s son from Chinatown. But Tom is absent for a large part of the book, pursuing his own dream of flying, rather than his father’s insistence that he follow him as a doctor. Once Mercy is at St. Clare’s, the novel focuses on the relationships she is developing with the other girls at the school, particularly Francesca, an Italian-American girl who faces her own teasing about her heritage. When Mr. du Lac proves to be a flaky business partner in their Chinatown venture, Mercy reluctantly allies with his prickly daughter Elodie in order to hold up her end of the bargain. The two girls are never precisely friends, but the evolution of their relationship over the course of the novel is a pleasure to watch. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the students must come together to try to shelter and feed everyone while the city is under martial law, awaiting relief assistance. This opens the second act, in which the girls really come into their own. Like Lee’s first novel, Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon is most notable for the attention given the relationships between the diverse girls.

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Under a Painted Sky

Cover image for Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Leeby Stacey Lee

ISBN 978-0-399-16803-1

“Don’t want safety, only freedom.”

When Samantha Young’s doting father dies abruptly, leaving her an orphan at fifteen, the fall out causes her to flee St. Joe, Missouri in the company of a runaway slave, following the Oregon Trail towards the frontier. A Chinese-American girl and a wanted black slave girl stick out like sore thumbs on the Trail, so the girls decide to disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys bound for the California Gold Rush. Sammy hopes that she can somehow catch up with Mr. Trask, her father’s business partner who is headed for California, while Andy is hoping to find her brother Isaac at a meeting place known only as Harp Falls. Although determined and resourceful, they are ill-prepared for the rigours of the trail, and are forced to put their trust in a band of cowboys, including two Texan cousins and a Mexican ranchero bound for the West. Traveling with the boys makes it harder for Sammy and Andy to keep their secret, but the advantages seem to outweigh the risks until their feelings begin to make things more complicated.

Stacey Lee challenges the typical Western format with her multicultural protagonists, and sensitive portrayal of race on the American frontier. There are no stereotypical Indians, but rather more nuanced examinations of Samantha’s experience as a lone Chinese-American in the eastern United States, contrasted with Annamae’s life as a slave. In doing so, Lee brings into focus groups who were very much present on the American frontier, but who have since been erased from our depictions of that time period. This focus is by no means at the expense of the story, which is filled with equal parts action and emotion. Lee blends strong action and suspense with resonant personal relationships that feel deep and significant. Sammy and Andy are quickly bonded by their shared trials, while West, Cay, and Peety obviously have a long history together, and know one another well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the close friendship that develops between Sammy and Andy as they rely on one another to protect their secret, having to consider everything from chest bindings, to menstrual cloths, to policing how they walk and talk. They become as close as sisters, but some tension remains due to the knowledge that pursuing their individual goals will eventually force them to separate. Andy is also a devout Christian, and struggles to reconcile her religiousness with Sammy’s frequent references to Chinese astrology and its beliefs about fate. Even as Lee develops the romantic interests in the later part of the story, she never loses the thread of Sammy and Andy’s bond, and the central role it plays in their adventure.

In many respects, the inevitable romance is one of the least enjoyable parts of Under a Painted Sky, though it serves well to complicate matters. West’s inexplicable attraction to Sammy, who he believes to be a boy, leads to a lot of internalized homophobic angst on his part, which doesn’t make him an especially appealing love interest. By contrast, Andy’s attraction to Peety is less fraught, and feels more natural as he teaches Andy to ride his stubborn horse, Princesa. However, Andy and Sammy’s friendship outshines both romances by miles. But as a great Western and friendship tale, a good romance is really more bonus than necessity.

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