By Maureen Tai, 26 June 2018
“It was planting season, which was especially gruelling. The mud stuck to their feet like glue and each seedling had to be painstaking planted by hand. When the hot sun burned overhead, Minli’s knees shook from weariness.”
Minli lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a dusty brown village, nestled in the shadows of the aptly named Fruitless Mountain. The little girl is barely nourished by the grains of rice that her parents coax from the poor land. However, her spirit is sustained by the stories that her father regales her with each evening. These stories have been handed down like precious family heirlooms from so many generations before that they sparkle with magic and the fantastical, and surely, must be ancient figments of an overactive imagination.
Or perhaps not.
Minli desperately wants to change her family’s fortune, so much so that she hands over, without a second thought, a whole copper coin – one of only two coins that they have in their entire household – to a goldfish peddler who passes through their village one day. “Bring fortune into your home,” he calls and she heeds. When they are back from toiling in the fields, Ba and Ma are shocked when they learn that Minli has squandered half of her fortune on a goldfish. Minli is suddenly struck by the harsh reality of her rash action. Filled with remorse, she decides to release the fish into the river so that there is no longer an extra mouth to feed, an extra mouth that the impoverished family can ill afford.
Miraculously, as the fish is set free, it speaks to Minli. It tells her the way to one of the central characters in her Ba’s stories, the Old Man of the Moon. As the elder knows everything, Minli can ask him how she can change her family’s dire circumstances! It is from this moment that Minli’s life, and her own adventure, becomes as fantastical as the stories told by her patient and loving father.
Minli steals away and single-mindedly embarks on her quest. Accompanied by a flightless dragon that she saves from greedy, peach-hoarding monkeys, Minli journeys to the City of Bright Moonlight where she befriends an orphan and his buffalo. The boy’s beautiful but secretive friend provides valuable information that in turn, allows Minli to seek out and secure the aid of a powerful but kindly king. Every being that she encounters as she makes her way to the Old Man of the Moon – the brave twins, Da-A-Fu; their grandparents, Amah and A-Gong; the talking white rabbit – has a story to tell, and each tale is like the piece of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Once completed, the puzzle will reveal the answers to Minli’s burning questions and like a crystal ball, reveal to us, the readers, the fate of Minli and her family.
Grace Lin – whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak some time ago – presents us with a veritable cornucopia of authentically Chinese stories. Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s in a Chinese Malaysian household steeped in Chinese culture myself, there are common threads that run through Chinese folklore – the importance of family and filial piety, respect for elders and authority, belief in a pre-ordained destiny, the existence of deities and animal spirits – that Grace expertly weaves together and painstakingly embroiders with thoughtful language and wonderful metaphors. Gorgeously coloured plate illustrations by the author embellish the book, making Where the Mountain Meets the Moon a delightful work of art to behold, and certainly, one to savour while drinking tea and nibbling on green bean pastries.
For ages 8 and up.