I started reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, while it was still in galley form and had never been able to finish the book. Friends in my Children’s Literature circle have heard from me for almost a year now how baffled I have been regarding the success of the book (a Newbery Honor) and the adoration of the book from so many reviewers, teachers, and librarians.
And today, I read this blog post from Story Sleuths in which the bloggers praise and analyze the strengths of the writing by Lin. (This is only Part 1, and posted 4 days ago. I imagine more posts will follow.)
Finally, I feel compelled and brave enough to share some counter points regarding this book.
I am going to focus on my reaction to the usage of words and phrases by the author and demonstrate how I am not convinced that this is an elegantly crafted volume. (Although, as a woman who grew up in Taiwan and was exposed to countless Chinese folk tales in book, opera, TV forms, I have a lot of discomfort with Grace Lin’s appropriation of the stories she read as an American girl of Taiwanese descent — even if she made it clear that these are NOT simple retellings of the original stories but based on her views on how these stories COULD have been told.)
Now, I was already a bit annoyed by page 4 because of a personal pet peeve.
- The book is set against a nondescript mystical China, by the way the village is described and the people are portrayed. Yet, in this fantasy land, in “Ancient” China, Minli’s father replies to her request for a story with “Okay” — an unfortunate word choice that carries strong western and contemporary flavors. (p. 4) This is a strong personal pet peeve, as explained in my About Fantasy — Is it OK to say “Okay”? post.
Grace Lin really loves using the word “seemed” in delivering her descriptive sentences. It occurs with such frequency that it becomes monotonous and because “seem” is such an uncertain word, it often weakens the impact of the imagery. (p. 110 “… the silence of the room seemed to ache with loneliness.” p. 111 “She seemed to glow like a pearl…” p. 117 “light of the moon seemed to bind the magistrate still.” p. 140, “The king’s words seemed to hang in the air.” p. 141, “The moon seemed to tremble…” and on and on… and in this one page, the narrative contains three “seemed” in three short paragraphs.
- . . . Minli’s footsteps seemed to hush the night as she made her way toward the Jade River. (This one works all right for me because her footsteps could not have hushed the night but could have created the sense of hushing the night.)
- . . . The moon shone above so even in the darkness of the night, the fish seemed to burn a bright orange. (This one puzzles me. I know that the fish did not burn but was it bright orange? If the sentence were “the fish seemed to burn with an orange flame” or “the fish seemed to burn, glowing bright orange” it would have delivered a clearer imagery.)
- . . . For the moment the fish seemed shocked and was still, like a flickering flame on a match. (It would have worked if the fish was simply socked or in shock. And we wouldn’t have had three consecutive “seemed’s” on one page.)
Now, that last sentence kind of “shocked” me when I first encountered it. How could a fish that is shocked into “stillness” be also “flickering” like a flame on a match that does not stop moving? (After considering this several times, I could have explained that perhaps the water has been moving moments before so that the water makes the brightly lit orange fish scales sparkle and flicker. But this figure of speech did not make the imagery clear. It does not illustrate or illuminate.)
Here are two more examples of odd similes:
- On page 42 … “only barely could he see the faint footprints on the ground — it was like searching for a wrinkle in a flower petal.” I did a triple-take and quite a bit of head scratching when I read this sentence: Many flowers have petals that are full of wrinkles. Did the author mean that it is extremely EASY to make out the faint footprints on the ground? If so, does not it contradict the “barely” sentiment proposed in the first portion of the sentence?
- On page 61 … “Under his gaze, Ma and Pa suddenly felt like freshly peeled oranges, and their words fell away from them.” To this day, after re-reading this sentence countless times, I still could not quite figure out how a “freshly peeled orange” might feel. I guess that it addresses the notion of their “words falling away” from them. Does that make them feel naked? Does it have something to do with the speed of the peeling (which does not happen instantly but can be pretty fast, unlike peeling an apple)? This figure of speech confounds this reader and conceals the full meaning from view.
Of course, plenty of readers disagree with my reaction and I am eager to hear from others who can shed some light on these and other passages from the book that, to me, seem to be on the “Composition 101/Figure of Speech Exercise 5” level and do not always flow organically to tell a vivid story.
I probably will post more musings on how metaphors and similes should only appear to illustrate, interpret, and illuminate the scenes and emotions and should be avoided at all cost when they contradict, confound, or conceal the underlying, true meanings of the passages. (My 3-Is and 3-Cs rule!)
3 responses to “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: An Elegantly Written Book?”
Thanks for this post. I am a big fan of this book, and would call it elegantly “constructed” in terms of story, but am surprised by the Story Sleuths analysis because I thought that writing itself…particularly rhythm and word choice…were the weakest part of Lin’s book. In fact, the very first page put me off the book entirely with this clunker:
“Crowded in the corner of where Fruitless Mountain and the Jade River met was a village …”
The story eventually won me over, in a big way, but it was a long haul. I actually think that Lin’s writing shows great promise, but calls for strong guidance….and for being read *aloud* in draft to find the problems.
I wonder if she’s read Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories”? Although that’s an extreme example, I get the sense that’s the tone she’s shooting for.
I definitely need to jump over all the hurdles and finally finish the book myself — to see the “structure.” (I get that it is a framed story and that all things eventually lead to a final solution (and probably a satisfying one, too.) And maybe I’ll post something more on my issues with Lin’s takes and alterations on Chinese folk lore and folk culture. (For examples, making The Old Man Under the Moon — in the book it’s The Old Man of the Moon — a god of fortune and having really poor peasants with the means to buy glass fish bowls with very little money.)
Such a great book! Very good description in settings, similes, etc.