For me, the most fascinating thing about looking into the past has always been the multitude of stories which make up history. It’s these narratives which draw me in, rather than detached facts or analysis. Many of my favourite books are historical fiction because of how it walks the line between being imaginative, by transporting me to other places and times, and being relatable, through the realism of the settings and conflicts faced by the characters.
Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee is a historical fiction novel which both immersed me in unfamiliar world and gave me opportunities to recognise my own. But it also left me with even deeper questions regarding the hidden voices of history, how I viewed our knowledge of the past, and the way this story sits alongside it.
Set in San Francisco in 1906, the book centres on fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong, a young girl whose family lives in Chinatown. Wanting to continue her education, she uses her knowledge and cunning to gain admittance to the prestigious St Clare’s School for Girls, where she pretends to be a wealthy heiress from China. Mercy faces both amusing and painful challenges in her early days at St Clare’s, but on April 18, a massive earthquake hits, destroying her home and school. Despite the tension and tragedies that occur as a result of this, Mercy finds strength along with her friends, and remains determined to help those in need around her.
With its lively narrative voice, vivid setting, and quietly powerful depictions of the characters and their relationships, Outrun the Moon is a thoroughly enjoyable book I would recommend to anyone. The book also intrigued me with the way it looked at history: from a little-heard, personal perspective, affirming the role of imagination as well as factual history through its storytelling.
It’s unsurprising that our knowledge of the past is shaped by power structures: history is often written by the privileged and by the victors. Even as the history of other groups have been voiced and uncovered, I feel that little has changed with regards to our collective knowledge. For example, my only memories of learning about Chinese-Australians in school history classes are not of their contributions, but only as victims of racism. When I eventually learned to question this and realised how many of their stories were missing – of their role during the world wars, of how they’d established their own institutions and communities – I was disappointed by how much erasure I’d internalised.
So it was refreshing to read about 1900s San Francisco from a little-heard perspective in American history. What became more and more evident as the story progressed was that Mercy’s point of view provided details which were particularly insightful in comparison to a more detached retelling of history. Living at the intersection of Chinese and American culture, Mercy resents it when “people openly stare at us, even in our western clothes”; she also deals with restrictions in gender roles, with her father telling her that “wives should be meek.” To an observer, Mercy may be seen as little more than a victim. But by telling the story from her perspective, I saw her attitude reflect the opposite: she took these conflicts as a reason to be all the more assertive of her own identity and fierce personality. A similar determination drove her in seeking to attend St Clare’s, even when many told her not to desire something she could not have.
Along with this, the thematic focus of Outrun the Moon is on how people find strength during times of tragedy by coming together despite their differences. Mercy is a character who is never allowed to forget how different she is throughout the story: she and the people of Chinatown are “caged in twelve rickety blocks”, considered “something to be ogled, lower even than black ghosts”, and she is forced to use a fake accent while at St Clare’s to keep up her Chinese heiress act. Hence, it is all the more poignant for her when she sees the results of her attempt to help the other earthquake victims:
“[I see a] mix of faces shining up at me – black, brown, yellow, and white, in all ages and sizes. In one neighbourhood where all are welcome. We all have one feature in common: an outlook. It is forged by the memory of what we went through and shaped by the hope that we will persevere.”
Through this, Outrun the Moon showed me that traditionally silenced perspectives in history can provide us with a more holistic understanding of the past, and strengthen ideas which would otherwise be dismissed.
Mercy’s perspective isn’t just a unique one, however: it’s also personal. Like many in San Francisco, Mercy deals with tragedy in the aftermath of the earthquake. The strength of her affection for those whom she had lost, and the focus on her personal grief – a universal emotion – shaped the book’s resonance. It helped me understand the effects of the earthquake in a deeper way than statistics and photos of the destruction could. The growing relationships between Mercy and her classmates also brought a personal and emotional dimension to the story, in conveying the lingering weight of tragedy. History was used as more than just a backdrop in the story, as a set for entertainment – the personal aspect also complemented my understanding of the period.
Yet with all that Outrun the Moon contributes to an understanding of San Francisco in 1906, it is still a work of fiction, and it’s the storytelling that comes first and foremost. I found it interesting to read the author’s note at the end, where she asks the reader to suspend disbelief – stating that it’s unlikely a girl from Chinatown would have been able to enter a school like St Clare’s, and that minor details regarding the earthquake are changed to increase tension. For someone expecting the book to sit within factual knowledge of history, this may have been frustrating. Yet I found this compelling as another way historical fiction adds to our understanding of the past: it prompts us to consider various possibilities we wouldn’t have otherwise.
So yes, maybe there was never a girl from Chinatown, San Francisco who made her way into a school like St Clare’s. But if one did, she may have found the same friendships as Mercy had. Mercy’s story in Outrun the Moon was a powerful reminder that prejudice can be overcome, and made me consider how differently history could have turned out if more people had chosen to be more open-minded, the way Mercy’s friends and the other earthquake victims did. Raising these possibilities shows us this: that imagination has a role in understanding the past, just as much as analysis does.
Outrun the Moon will be released in May 2016. This review is based on an uncorrected galley copy of the book and quotes may not reflect the final text.