My almost 3-year-old son Milo and I are great fans of Grace Lin’s illustrated children’s books, Dim Sum for Everyone! and The Ugly Vegetables. In Starry River of the Sky, Lin takes on an older set of readers with a novel that circles around a rich tapestry of Chinese myths, particularly the story of the Moon Lady. Although I am not accustomed to reading children’s novels, I must admit I could not put this one down.
A young runaway, Rendi, finds himself stranded in the Village of Clear Sky, where the moon does not shine. Taken in by the local innkeeper, Rendi is set to work as the chore boy. Rendi is trained by the innkeeper’s young daughter, Peiyi, who treats him with suspicion because, in her experience, “Everyone leaves.” Peiyi’s mother had died and her older brother, Jiming, has recently left the Village of Clear Sky.
The most distinguishing feature of the Village of Clear Sky is a large stone slab that seems to continue beyond the horizon. Peiyi proudly tells Rendi that this is the Stone Pancake and that her ancestor created it many generations ago. At night, Rendi hears mournful crying, which he attributes to the sky. Suspecting that he is the only one who hears the wailing, Rendi tells no one for fear that others will say he’s crazy.
It’s a sad place to be stranded and Rendi immediately resents Village of Clear Sky. He cannot wait until a traveler comes by so that he can stow away in their cart for a better destination. Nobody seems to come to the village, however, and Rendi spends his days doing mundane chores and his nights being kept awake by the sky’s tortured wailing.
One day, a beautiful and mysterious guest, Madame Chang, arrives at the inn. She pays for a month of lodging and meals. Rendi and Peiyi are immediately drawn to her, and Madame Chang entrances them by telling them stories -- variations of Chinese myths that may be familiar to some Hyphen readers. By telling stories, Madame Chang gains Rendi’s trust and challenges him to tell his own stories, including why he runs away from home. Throughout the narrative, there is the underlying questions of why Rendi hears the mournful wailing from across the mysterious Stone Pancake and why the moon is missing from the sky.
In reading Grace Lin’s picture books to Milo, I have often wished her books were available when I was a child, as they tell and illustrate the story of the Chinese American experience, such that my own family experience was normalized. Lin has also written novels exploring the Chinese-American experience in her Pacy Lin series.
Starry River of the Sky, along with its predecessor, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is a departure of sorts in that it is a fantastical past that illuminates traditional stories that might have been told by my parents. Folktales, in particular, illuminate beliefs and values held by a society; in this case, the value of family, community, tradition and forgiveness.
What I especially like about Starry River is that it highlights the importance of stories and story telling in defining who we are. For young readers in a formative stage of life, especially young Asian Americans, this can be an empowering lesson -- a way of affirming one’s Chinese identity in a Western-dominant culture. These books were sorely missing from my life as a child, and as an Asian American mother, I am grateful for writers like Grace Lin who are writing for my son’s generation.
I did, however, have some issues with the ending of Starry River. It feels somewhat convenient and still incomplete. I did want to know what happens to Rendi after the end of the novel, how he handles the consequences of his decision, which does not solve all his problems. I like that the ending is not tied into a nice bow, but I remain curious as to Rendi’s future and how he will find his own way through a challenging childhood.
Starry River of the Sky is definitely an engaging read, one that I am happy to keep for when Milo grows up. He is, of course, going to be a reader.
Sabina Chen reads, writes, and chases after her toddler in New Hampshire.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!