Don’t let the blog title fool you: I like the book. However, this is the second time I’ve read the book and this is when the flaws of a text tend to show themselves (unless the flaws are glaringly obvious . . . even then new eyes cannot hide them). Unfortunately, this particular flaw is one of my pet peeves.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin is a fantastic little compendium of connected Chinese myths. The jacket flap describes it thusly:
“In the valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.”
The flap doesn’t do the book justice. The true beauty of this book isn’t the plot that connects the myths, but the myths themselves. Every time someone tells one of these stories, it’s separated from the text with a title surrounded by an individual graphic and a different typeface. These myths, with their special typeface and titles, serve a similar function to the occasional pictures within the book. They create a mental image, one of fancy and mystery. What story is to be told next?
This is why it so frustrating when, in the middle of the book, the author gets lazy. These myths at the beginning have all the florid language of oral stories without the cumbersome format of the epics of old. The first begins, “Once when there were no rivers on the earth, the Jade Dragon was in charge of the clouds.” Many of the stories, beginning and end, have this same sense of anticipation for a story to explain the fantastic. But in the middle of the book, the language of the stories dulls and I get the feeling that the author went too long without a myth to include so she just made a story up.
If she had managed to keep that sense of wonder and distinction from ordinary life in the myths, I wouldn’t have minded. However, these middle myths have a feeling of banality, like they serve a purpose, but don’t matter enough to deserve the same caliber of writing that the suspected “real myths” do. One of my least favorites, “The Story of the Buffalo Boy’s Friend” begins like this: “Sometimes, during the hot summer days, there is not enough water for my buffalo . . .” This hardly inspires interest. What is more heartbreaking is the friend from the title is a mystical girl. She, like the Jade Dragon, is a puzzle to be introduced to and solved. But the reader’s wonder is inhibited, even reduced to mild curiosity, by the dreary format and language of the tale.
I’ll admit, I think I might be looking at this book more critically than others might, especially children. I have a passion for myth that has been my constant companion since childhood. It’s heavily influenced my studies and continues to be something I habitually delve back into. Treating myth as something that just serves a purpose feels intrinsically wrong.
Thankfully, the writing in this book, even in the plot that connects all these myths, is mostly beautiful. Even the story of little Minli has some distinctly mythic characteristics, and the language follows. In the first few pages Minli’s family is described with phrases that put me in mind of the Grimm Brothers: “Minli could not remember a time when Ma did not sigh; it often made Minli wish she had been called a name that meant gold or fortune instead. Because Minli and her parents, like the village and the land around them, were very poor.”
Grace Lin is, in my opinion, a talented author. Her blend of a very Western heroine, independent and free-thinking, with the Chinese mythology and culture is masterful. I would recommend this book to many different types and ages. However, I wish there had been just a little more care. Eastern myths are hard enough to come by in Western literature. How unfortunate that some of these bright little stories were merely deemed “good enough.”