San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.
On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?
This novel was painted against the culturally rich backdrop of early 20th century San Fransisco. Specifically, centring around China town and the difficulties Chinese immigrants faced in America at this time. The author weaves Chinese traditions, superstitions and culture into her story with practiced ease and an unwavering commitment to its portrayal.
Mercy was headstrong and determined to achieve her dreams in a world which wanted to see her defeated. She had an admirable dedication to her family and friends and was cunning and quick thinking when it furthered her own ends. She proved reliable in a crisis and led the others with commendable bravery.
The dynamic and intricate relationships between the boarding school girls was born of shared camaraderie and convenience. However, it flourished under the strenuous circumstances the girls found themselves in. This was the core of the novel. There was basically no romance. It lived on the edges of the storyline, inevitable but inconsequential to the plot, for which I was glad.
There were a lot of plot lines which fell to the wayside. The multitude of characters made it difficult to accommodate so many story lines and certain backstories felt unnecessary and were underdeveloped. Which was a shame because despite their shallow nature all the characters had the potential to be compelling. Unfortunately, this is also the reason that the tragedies in this novel had very little impact on me.
My biggest criticism of this novel is that is was too short. I wanted to see Mercy bring all the people who had underestimated her to their knees. Furthermore, the fledgeling relationships Mercy formed would have benefitted from some fleshing out. However, I understand why the author wanted to stick to a small time frame, given that the novel entered around the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906. The ending was sweet and allowed for closure but felt insufficient.