Welcome to the B&N Teen Blog’s feminist YA book club! In this semi-monthly series we’ll be highlighting kickass new and forthcoming YA books with a strong feminist bent. This month we’re discussing Stacey Lee’s compelling and masterfully crafted Outrun the Moon.
2015 was a banner year for feminist YA novels. Amid last year’s absolute avalanche of titles with complex, spirited, uncategorizable heroines arrived Stacey Lee’s dazzling and daring Under a Painted Sky, which followed two girls—one Chinese American, the other a runaway slave—circa 1849, on their cross-country quest to the wide open frontier.
Samantha and Annamae disguised themselves as boys to survive life on the treacherous Oregon Trail, but that little bit of deceit did nothing to camouflage the powerfully feminist story Lee weaves. Survival is also a key theme of her latest bewitching read, Outrun the Moon, which transports us to San Francisco, 1906, and introduces to the ambitious, resourceful, and “bossy” Mercy Wong.
Lee, whose roots trace back to San Francisco’s Chinatown, is the legal director for the grassroots We Need Diverse Books coalition, so it’s no surprise her first two published novels are historical fiction with Chinese protagonists. (Her third YA outing, The Secret of a Heart Note, revolves around Mimosa, a descendant of love witches, and drops in December. How’s that for range?) Continuing in the same vein as Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon brings every aspect of its era to life, warts and all—and given that we see this world through Mercy’s eyes, there are plenty of societal warts.
With her high “bossy cheeks,” 15-year-old Mercy can hardly be contained by Chinatown’s strict decorum and rampant poverty. She lives and dies by the principles of The Book for Business-Minded Women, a how-to guide full of witticisms and advice for women who want to make their way in a businessman’s world. For Mercy, however, it isn’t “just a book on how to run a business; it was a philosophy.” It’s from Mrs. Lowry, the book’s author, that she learns “your circumstances don’t determine where you can go, only your starting point.”
More than any other lesson in her life, Mercy takes that one to heart. She may have been born in Chinatown, but that doesn’t mean she has to live and die there. Buoyed by her mother’s support for her unconventional attitudes, and anchored by a need to provide a better life for her sickly younger brother, Mercy concocts a plan to gain admission to St. Clare’s School for Girls, an organization whose name implies, though doesn’t explicitly state, the qualifiers “wealthy” and “white.”
She worms her way into St. Clare’s through quick-witted cunning that would make Mrs. Lowry proud, proposing a business deal with the school’s financial backer to set up his chocolatier business in Chinatown, where few “respectable” businesses have gone before, in exchange for admission.
Compare that with Ling-Ling, Mercy’s perceived nemesis, who is traditionally pretty, docile, and marriageable in every way. Mercy’s bossy cheeks, pronounced cheekbones that supposedly indicate an unmanageable woman, define more than her appearance; instead they frame her whole worldview, as she turns a point of body-shaming into a badge of honor: “They were a gift from my mother, and I am proud of them, even though men shy away from women with that attribute.”
While she consistently worries Ling-Ling might be making eyes at Tom, the boy she grew up with and has, on some level, always believed she would marry, Mercy doesn’t ever try to emulate that kind of discreet femininity. Instead, she plows ahead with her plan to become a business magnate and receive a first-rate education. She never stops being Mercy, even when it’s detrimental in the short term, or, worse yet, when she’s instructed to do so.
At St. Clare’s, Mercy must pretend she is a Chinese heiress, as opposed to riffraff from the undesirable part of the city. By no means does her performance go smoothly, though she wings it with grace and more than a little wry humor, as evidenced by her improvised demonstration of a Chinese tea ceremony. But she plays her part, making friends and butting heads with the girls around her, themselves a diverse mix of definitions of femininity. Her band of adopted sisters include Katie, a rip-roarin’ Texan; Harry, quiet, shy, and unsure of herself; and Francesca, equal parts Luna Lovegood and master chef.
When San Francisco’s historic earthquake strikes, Mercy is separated from her family, possibly for good, and forced to make her way in an uncertain world with her upper-crust classmates. The city is in shambles, but Mercy and her fellow St. Clare’s girls handle the situation, for the most part, with courage and aplomb. Mercy and her bossy cheeks spring into action, finding the necessities to survive and aiding other unfortunate salong the way.
Yet, cut off from the relative safety of Chinatown, Mercy’s forced to endure unimaginable hostility, branded untrustworthy or barbaric by many of the people she’s trying to help. Though she has every reason to, Mercy shows the spiritual cost of such oppression, without sinking to resentment and vitriol. Her frustrations fuel her to do more, as do the bonds she has formed with her classmates, perhaps the only things unshaken by the quake.
In examining each of the girls who make a home in their makeshift tent city, Lee hammers home one of the most important aspects of Outrun the Moon: there’s no right way to be a girl, or a woman. Each St. Clare’s girl handles life after the disaster in a distinct way, but by the end, they all seem to have reached the same conclusion: the only right way to be is to be yourself, and to allow others the same freedom.
“What could a mere girl, a Chinese girl no less, do?” Mercy asks herself early in the novel. Quite a lot, as it turns out.