Book Review: “Outrun the Moon” by Stacey Lee

Mercy Wong has big dreams, hoping to become a successful businesswoman who earns enough to move her family out of their tight Chinatown quarters. In the San Francisco of 1906, this dream seems near enough to impossible, but Mercy’s resourcefulness earns her a place at St. Clare’s Boarding School, one of the most respected girls’ schools in the country. Mercy soon learns that making it into St. Clare’s is only the beginning of her troubles as she faces the prejudices of her classmates, the pain of leaving her family behind in Chinatown, and – worst of all – the horrific earthquake that threatens to tear the city apart.

I was absorbed by this book from the very beginning. Author Stacey Lee has crafted a historical YA novel so lively that it practically jumps off of the page. Mercy herself – with the “bossy cheekbones” she inherits from her mother – is particularly vivid and endearing. I was continually impressed with her ingenuity, bravery, and loyalty to her family. Mercy felt real to me, and not only would I be happy to read more about her…I also want to be her friend.

Lee rounds out Mercy’s story with an equally delightful cast of supporting characters. The girls of St. Clare’s, from bitter, neglected Elodie to defiant and clever Francesca, are expertly drawn. I felt almost as though I was reading a new and more exciting retelling of A Little Princess, except instead of Sarah’s father regaining his memory and saving the day at the last minute, Mercy manages to move mountains all on her own. Also a delight is Tom, Mercy’s childhood friend and (worthy) crush. I loved how Lee managed to build a whole history between these two characters without Tom even having to be in the story that much. After all, boys are all well and good, but I’d rather read about Mercy’s exploits in striving for a better life than her mooning over a boy. The amount and intensity of their romance was just right.

Of course, the story soon changes from a tension-filled boarding school drama to a disaster survival story after a historic earthquake destroys much of the city. Lee’s depiction of the event isn’t saccharine or sugar-coated; Mercy and the other girls experience real losses in the aftereffects of the disaster. Their ability to overcome both their differences and society’s expectations of them in order to help other survivors of the quake forms the emotional crux of the story.

Outrun the Moon is a story about believing in yourself against all odds, and a nice reminder that sometimes, all the hard work you’ve done will pay off. I will definitely be recommending this book to my friends!

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.