Dorothy – with her gingham dress, silver shoes, and little dog – may be the most instantly recognizable heroine in classic American literature. It turns out you can take all that away from her, whirl her away to ancient China, and never mistake her for a minute, as Grace Lin proves in her lovely new book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
Nothing will grow on Fruitless Mountain – supposedly the broken heart of a dragon – and the people stuck farming it are all weary and covered with mud. Except for a little girl named Minli, who “was not brown and dull like the rest of the village.”
Unlike Dorothy, the source of Minli’s sparkle isn’t a dog; it’s her father’s stories, which Ba tells her every night after the family eats their dinner of plain rice. While his tales of the Old Man of the Moon, Never-Ending Mountain, and greedy Magistrate Tiger delight Minli, her mother is weary of fairy tales. “Our house is bare and our rice hardly fills our bowls, but we have plenty of stories.” Ma sighed again. “What a poor fortune we have!”
Readers might disagree, as Lin (“Year of the Dog”) weaves together echoes of “The Wizard of Oz” with classic Chinese folk stories to create a layered tale that’s a pleasure to read aloud. (Plus, she gets bonus points for including a version of “The Magic Pear Tree,” one of my favorites growing up.) Lin’s own full-color illustrations accompany the tales, and it’s a tossup as to which is more elegant – the artwork or the writing.
Being a plucky young heroine, Minli naturally sets off to see the Wizard – er, excuse me, the Old Man of the Moon – to learn how to change her family’s fortune. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. There are no scarecrows or tin woodmen – instead, Minli encounters a talking goldfish, a boy, and a dragon who can’t fly. The cowardly lion doesn’t appear; instead, there’s a ghostly green tiger. There are monkeys, but I’m happy to report that they don’t fly.
“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” cuts between Minli’s journey to her parents waiting desperately back home. Ma blames Ba for filling Minli’s head with nonsense. “Making her believe she could change our miserable fortune with an impossible story! Ridiculous!”
“Yes,” Ba said sadly, “it is impossible. But it is not ridiculous.”
In between fairy tales, Lin intersperses bits of wisdom about family, faith, and contentment – and the insidiousness of bitterness and want.
The finale has less poignancy than L. Frank Baum’s classic American tale. But by the end, Minli isn’t the only one who learns that there’s no place like home.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddosiers.blogspot.com.