In this heartwarming historical fiction novel for young adults set in 1906 San Francisco, we meet Mercy Wong, a young woman of 15 who dreams of making something of her life in spite of the many prejudices against, and obstacles to, Chinese at that time. Like her previous book, Under a Painted Sky, this story also expresses the Chinese principle of yuanfen, which refers to the fate that brings people together to become a family.
Mercy is determined to get a good education and make some money. She wants to help her father, who works a grueling sixteen hours a day in the laundry, and to ensure that her sickly little brother Jack doesn’t have to work there also. In addition, Mercy wants to live up to her mother’s high expectations for her.
She manages to talk her way into a white high school (schools were segregated then) because there were no high schools in Chinatown, the twelve block area where the Chinese were restricted. She was doing well until her conflict with her roommate, Elodie Du Lac, came to a head. It seemed she would be expelled, but the date was April 18, when the great earthquake of San Francisco struck. It had an estimated magnitude of 7.8. (It was reported that this violent quake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.) Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days.
Chinatown was destroyed, with Mercy’s mother and brother caught in the conflagration. She didn’t know the fate of her father, who might have been out on business, or might not have. Nor does she know if the boy she likes, Tom Gunn, is safe. Supposedly, he left on a trip.
The girls gather in Golden Gate Park along with other survivors, and they are not only traumatized, but hungry and without homes. The soldiers don’t help much at first – they are more focused on policing people. Mercy observed, “It’s just like Chinatown and all the laws passed to contain us. We were never the enemy. The enemy was our country’s own fear.”
Mercy decides to lead the girls on a mission to help others in need. But first she has to overcome the prejudice against her race, as well as the pain of her own losses.
Discussion: The story illustrates the animosity towards the Chinese at the time; just 24 years earlier, President Arthur had signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any more Chinese from immigrating. But as Mercy observed, “[t]he trembler moved us in mysterious ways, shifting underlying assumptions about social rank and order.” The quake made all of them rethink what was important, at least for a while.
Evaluation: There are so many good aspects to this coming-of-age story, foremost among them the friendships that develop between Mercy and the Caucasian girls at the all-white-but-Mercy boarding school. Mercy is a wonderful character: strong, resourceful, brave, and spunky, but also charming rather than abrasive, as many young adult female heroines are. Mercy also has a great sense of humor, as expressed through a combination of drollery and aphorisms from Chinese culture. Mercy has been brought up to understand the world through Chinese philosophical and astrological precepts, and while a part of her dismisses them as superstitions, a part of her pays attention. Her mother told her “you can’t outrun the moon,” but as Mercy allows, “she never said anything about outflying it.”
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons,, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016