The Situation: It's 1906 in San Francisco, and 15 year-old Mercy Wong knows that if she is ever going to be the businesswoman she dreams of being, she needs to further her education. Unfortunately this can't be done in Chinatown, and the country has not yet embraced a spirit of inclusion, especially when it comes to children of different races going to school together. But Mercy has a plan for getting herself into the St. Clare's School for Girls, an elite boarding school that would mean her living away from her mother, father, and younger brother Jack if she were to get in. Only by agreeing to pretend to be a Chinese heiress, and guaranteeing a business deal between Chinatown and a local chocolatier, does Mercy gain admittance, but then the real work begins.
The Problem: Despite her impeccable English and obvious ability, Mercy has a hard time making friends and keeping out of trouble in her new school. Plus, she is supposed to be a wealthy heiress from China, something she most certainly is not, as her humble Chinatown home would prove should anyone see it. But Mercy is determined to do what she has to do in order to stay in the school she believes could help her to a better future. But then disaster strikes in the form of a terrifying earthquake, and being able to stay in a fancy boarding school becomes the least of Mercy's worries as the city seems to crumble and burn before her eyes. Instead of worrying if she remembered to turn her uniform inside out, Mercy begins a frantic search for her family, for adequate shelter, and for a sufficient source of food. And she must do so with people from St. Clare's who still may not be ready to accept her based on how she looks.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also historical fiction. Set around spring of 1906, the novel ultimately leads to the epic earthquake that rocked San Francisco, leaving many people dead or without homes. Before survival becomes the main objective, Mercy must deal with the prejudices of the day, as her kind are expected to live and work within the borders of Chinatown, never emerging to offend the sensibilities of those who wish to pretend they aren't there. Even within her own neighborhood, girls like Mercy are expected to be submissive and obey, but her "bossy cheeks" rarely allow this, which means Mercy often speaks her mind and does what she wants. And while scheming her way into a fancy school would seem to be enough to keep her busy, there is also Tom, who everyone believes to be her intended, but Mercy isn't so sure. And to make matters worse, it seems Tom isn't sure either. In many ways, Mercy is a typical 15 year-old girl in the US, but the racial prejudices of 1906, and the lack of opportunities within Chinatown add another layer of issues Mercy must navigate if she wants to accomplish her dream. And then there is the earthquake, which disrupts the plans of even the most wealthy and comfortable of the city's citizens.
My Verdict: Once again, Lee does not disappoint. She presents a young adult novel that is fun, interesting, relatable, and again, makes me excited to see what Lee comes up with next. If I had any issues, it would be that interest in the storyline actually seemed to go down for me after the earthquake hits, when you would think it would go up. Mercy still has to deal with prejudice attitudes towards Chinese-Americans, and now she has to adopt basic survival skills as both food and shelter become scarce. But having her try to survive within the walls of St. Clare's was much more engaging, at least for me. Also, the conclusion of the book left more than a few loose ends that I felt could have used some more attention. But beyond that, this is a great story that takes a look at race relations in early 1900s California. And Mercy is a fantastic lead character who is driven without being annoying about it. And while her anger may flare often, and quickly, she is still gracious, even to those who have done nothing to deserve it.
Favorite Moment: When Mercy tricks her adversary into doing their chores the hard way, while Mercy and her friends quietly do their own chores the quick way and get done much faster.
Favorite Character: Headmistress Crouch appears to be someone who could cause a great amount of trouble for Mercy when she first enters St. Clare's. And while that may be true, even though the woman is stern and permanent grouchy, she is a strict taskmaster for a reason and ultimately cares for the girls - all of them - and their safety.
Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Under a Painted Sky, Lee's first novel. But I also recommend The Day of Atonement by Davis Liss, another novel that includes a historically devastating earthquake in the middle of the action.