Sunday, 11 July 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon - Grace Lin

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:A girl and a dragon looking for fortune
Advantages: spellbinding creativity, intricately woven subplots, beautiful illustrations
Disadvantages: narrative quality in sections

The little girl Minli, inspired by the stories of her father and despite the exasperation of her mother at the foolishness of such stories, yearns to find the Old Man of the Moon who alone knows the answer to all her questions: how can the people of her village escape from poverty?, how can the barren Fruitless Mountain be made to bear fruit?, how can she change her family's fortune? This is no small problem. The people of her village work tirelessly from dawn till dusk to grow rice, and then they eat the rice they grow. This frugal existence seems to have no hope of improving for the better. The only light is the humanity with which life is lived, characterised by the telling of stories.

One day, through an act of generosity to a talking goldfish, she receives a lead in her quest, and, acting on it, she runs away from her beloved parents to fulfil the dream of bringing them a better life. She saves a dragon who can't fly from its lake of tears who then joins her, and together they meet many others along the way.

Everything has a purpose. Everything is alive. Each person or animal has a story. The stories are incredibly creative, inspired by elements of traditional Chinese folklore, and elaborately and intricately woven to make a fine tapestry of a book. This is the book's strength and it is beautiful how the author succeeds in tying up all the disparate strands of plot in the end. Together with the beauty of the author's own full-page colour illustrations, including the cover, the quality of the printing and the hardcover binding, this makes for a very beautiful book and a lovely gift to any child or any lover of folktales.

The only drawback I would say is a slight dip in the quality of the narrative in places and the sometimes tired manner of building suspense. But then, this is not a masterpiece of literature, but a tale intended for children which adults will thoroughly enjoy.

Finally, the book has been compared by some to "The Wizard of Oz". Both are heartwarming fantasies involving a girl on a quest for a mysterious saviour, but this is no Chinese re-make of a western classic. The underlying structure and themes and message are all different. It reminded me more of "Monkey" by Wu Ch'eng-en, but without the testosterone. Unlike "The Wizard of the Oz", the story has a multiplicity, shifting regularly for example to the parents awaiting their daughter's return, and these episodes are used with varying success to build suspense and convey new information. While, the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a fraud, the same is not true of the Old Man of the Moon, and there isn't quite the same sense of disappointment. But in both books, many of the answers the characters were looking for are found within themselves. Yet also in both, the journey was necessary. While in "The Wizard of Oz", courage and fear are discovered to be two sides of the same coin, in "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon", the underlying focus is rather on gratitude and generosity. But if this were merely a moral tale of acceptance and gratitude, it would be self-defeating because had it not been for dissatisfaction and the desire for something greater, then Minli would never have set out on her quest. Rather, everything has a reason. And do not underestimate the little dreamer! For, however impossible things may seem, they will often find a way.

Summary: A heartwarming fantasy, and a perfect gift for the child or the child-at-heart.


  1. What age child is this geared towards?

    Keep those reviews coming!

  2. I don't know Erica. Is there an answer to such a question? If someone's read tWoz or Narnia or Alice's adventures or classic folktales from around the world, then about the same age as these.

  3. I just happened to pick it up cheaply a few months ago because one of my local bookstores was closing down, alongside books on Buddhism and the like. And then I heard last week that it picked up a Newbery Honor award for children's fiction. This is good praise, but I'd still always recommend the classics first. So I don't pay attention to awards, but I enjoyed it and I think good stuff is indifferent to Harry Potter, lol.

  4. Cool :-) Good stuff is definitely indifferent to age! I guess I was just more curious if it was worded simply - my youngest is 11 and was wondering if she could read it independently or would need to have it read to her.

  5. Yes, I think it'd be brill. But you'd enjoy it too, honest. See, what's good is that characters in the story keep telling stories themselves of two or three pages, so the book is naturally subdivided into bite sized chunks that even a little child could enjoy. One or two of these could be better written, but mostly they're very well told. The complexity comes in from the number of characters we meet and remembering them so we can see how their stories interconnect. This seems a daunting prospect, but it all works out beautifully, just as the final Harry Potter book did. Maybe a young child wouldn't have the memory to appreciate this aspect of the book.

    My parents used to read me books at bedtime, and they tell me that I would get up in the middle of the night to finish them. Some things never change, lol.

    And I'm sure a lot went over my head.

    Then again, I'm sure a lot still does!

    Oh, and it just occurred to me that the book is a lot simpler style to read than my review of it. :-)

  6. Thanks for the recommendation, Okei. Sounds wonderful....