Recommended for ages 11+
Mercy Wong is a teenage Chinese-American girl living in 1906 San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her father labors as a launderer, her mother a fortune teller; her young brother Jack is sickly. Mercy wants to give her family much more in life, so she uses her wits and a bit of bribery to gain admission to the exclusive St. Clare’s School for Girls, convinced that she will learn the life skills and business acumen she needs to succeed in life. Life at St. Clare’s is frustrating: it’s essentially a finishing school for spoiled rich girls, and the Chinese girl is seen as beneath them – including by the school’s headmistress. Mercy’s determination is put to the ultimate test when the 1906 earthquake devastates San Francisco, destroying her school and Chinatown. Mercy pulls herself and her schoolmates together as they wait to be reunited with their families in the temporary park encampment. As the days press on and more news circulates about the devastation, Mercy sets a new task for herself: to ease the suffering of those around her.
I loved, loved, loved this book. Stacey Lee weaves a beautiful, powerful work of historical fiction, choosing a moment in time when people were forced to come together: black, white, Asian, wealthy, poor, the earthquake was the great equalizer. How the survivors chose to move forward often left me open-mouthed, as prejudices – racial and class (or perceived class) – prevailed.
Mercy Wong is the kind of protagonist whose name every reader needs to know. She’s smart, witty, determined, and full of love for her family. She has hopes and dreams, and she refuses to let other people’s ways of thinking narrow her own scope. When intimidated, she presses onward. She’s a survivor even before the earthquake hits, and in its aftermath, she becomes so much more: she becomes a beacon.
Stacey Lee brings every single character in this book to beautiful life. Every character moved me to a reaction, whether it was disgust, anger, or affection. She also reminded me that I’m as quick to judge others – even literary characters – on surface impressions – just as these seemingly skin-deep characters judge those around them. She unpacks these characters as the book progresses, and while their actions are still small-minded and cruel, the reasons are explained. She also weaves aspects of Chinese culture and true historical details into her narrative, giving us a work of historical fiction from a time period not usually touched on, through the eyes of a narrator with a very unique perspective.
I just told a colleague that I want to wrap myself up in Stacey Lee’s words; they’re beautifully written and just curl around you, even when describing dark, aching moments.
Author Stacey Lee is a We Need Diverse Books founding member. Her previous book, Under a Painted Sky, received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, and Outrun the Moon has received a starred Kirkus review. You can read an excerpt at the Entertainment Weekly website.
Add this book to your collections, booktalk it for summer, and give it to anyone who loves good literature.