Sound Off! When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

As you may have noticed, here at Speculative Chic, we love following the award circuit. While we don’t get to read all the things for all the awards, we do make a pretty darn good effort, if I do say so myself (and as Editor-in-Chic, I do say so!). However, there are some awards that pop up and say, “Here’s the winner and the shortlist!” which doesn’t give us time to sit down and pick out which books we’d like to read and review.

Such as the Tiptree Award.

So when it was announced that Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours had won the Tiptree this year, a few of Speculative Chic’s contributors came to me saying they wanted to read it. And I decided that since we’ve done lots of Sound Offs for movies and we’ve done one Sound Off for a game, why not do one for a book?

When the Moon Was Ours (2016)
Written by: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genre: Magical Realism/Young Adult
Pages: 288
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

The premise:

To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

Atmospheric, dynamic, and packed with gorgeous prose, When the Moon was Ours is another winner from this talented author.

Please join Merrin, Kelly, and Nancy as they Sound Off on this year’s Tiptree Winner! Please note:
There are some minor spoilers through-out, but nothing major, and the end of the book is note spoiled.

Merrin:  At roughly 7% of the way into this book, I just wasn’t feeling it. The prose felt too purple, the mix of present, future, and past timelines was too much, and I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. (Is this the real life, is this just fantasy . . .?) Thankfully, I powered through all of that to discover that, after a tumultuous start, this book is a truly lovely coming-of-age story that wrestles with timely topics like racism and gender identity told through the whimsical lens of magic realism.

The strength of this book, and perhaps one of the reasons it does have a slower start, is the characters. Miel and Sam are beautifully rendered, complete people with a depth seldom seen in young adult fiction. They have been friends since the day Miel was poured out of the town’s water tower. Roses grow out of her wrist (and here, my friends, is where you start to just go with it) that she routinely cuts off and throws into the river. If this story could truly be said to have a villain, it’s the Bonner sisters, four pretty white girls who have ruled the small town since Miel came out of the tower but whose power over it seems to be slipping. The Bonner sisters decide that Miel’s roses are the key to regaining their power and decide to take them, with force if necessary.

This book is also a love story between Latina Miel and Italian-Pakistani Sam, a transgender boy. Sam began this path as a bacha posh, which is a cultural tradition you should definitely google, but is basically in place so that families with only daughters can have an option of having a son to do things like escort their sisters in public, work to bring money in, and go to school. I really liked the way Sam’s story was handled, both in his relationship with Miel and his relationship with his mother.

This book is ultimately about love, friendship, identity and self-acceptance. Miel must come to terms with the circumstances that brought her to the water tower and how a past she barely remembers continues to affect her life, manifested in her overwhelming fear of pumpkins (yes, the squash). Sam wrestles with the realization that he doesn’t want to stop being himself, as bacha posh status typically ends at puberty. And the Bonner sisters face an unknown future they can’t control simply by directing it to be so.

The magical realism style can be a divisive one, but it’s one I’ve loved since high school, when I was assigned The Milagro Beanfield War in English class. This book is beautiful, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Kelly: I was excited to read When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore because it falls into the category of magic realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of that genre, wrote my favorite book of all time, Love in the Time of Cholera. When the Moon Was Ours has the teen romance that I expect from a young adult book but nothing else is typical. Miel and Sam are childhood best friends who fall in love. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist. Almost no one knows that Sam began life as a girl named Samira. When the Bonner sisters decide that Miel’s roses will give them the power to enchant men, none of their secrets are safe.

The young adult genre is often criticized for its lack of diversity, but When the Moon Was Ours offers an incredibly unique and culturally rich reading experience. Miel’s childhood is based on the Hispanic folktale of La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”) who drowns her children in a river. Sam tells Miel about the Pakistani tradition of bacha posh, in which families who have no sons allow a daughter to dress and live as a boy until she reaches adulthood. Miel makes up with Sam after a fight by teaching him to make alfajores, a traditional Latin American shortbread cookie spread with dulce de leche. I also found it refreshing that Sam’s being transgender is not the main focus of the story because it allows him to be a more complex and human character.

Miel’s and Sam’s relationship is sweet and authentic. There is a lovely scene where Sam reminisces about decorating Miel’s back with star stickers.

And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin. When he was done, she laughed, mouth open, to see that each foil star had left a lighter cast of its shape. In that first blazing day of summer, her skin had tanned enough that she was covered in constellations (p.165).

It’s unfortunate that When the Moon Was Ours will likely be controversial in school libraries due to its sympathetic portrayal of transgender characters. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky generated outrage over its gay characters in the very high school I attended — not in 1999 when the book was published and I was a high school senior, but in 2009.

When the Moon Was Ours has some mild violence, disturbing acts of bullying, and non-explicit sex. It’s not an inappropriate book. In fact, the book’s central message about living your own truth is a positive one for teens.

Nancy: Beautiful prose is a tricky thing for me. Find me in the right mood, and I fall in love with it, want to savor its every moment. But most of the time, I’m just not there. I’m the type of person who wants to tackle books with excitement, flying through every page, which doesn’t really suit the nature of more lyrical writing.

This is probably why I bounced off When the Moon Was Ours when I first picked it up. Fortunately, the deeper I got into its story, the more I came to see how special it is.

When the Moon was Ours is a fascinating work of magical realism, taking place in a world where a teenage girl has roses that grow from her wrists, and a family of sisters possesses a seemingly supernatural control over the men they desire. The book features complex characters that you can really root for. While it took me a little while to warm up Sam and Miel’s relationship, the further I got into the book, the more genuine and touching their love felt. I also really appreciated this book’s examination of gender and its inclusion of a transgender lead. With transgender individuals becoming an important topic of conversations in our politics, many people are trying to figure where they stand on said issue. This is one of the reason why it’s so important to have accurate portrayals of such individuals in the stories we consume: to allow us to see transgender people as people, not talking points. The other reason, of course, is so that transgender teens who pick up When the Moon Was Ours see positive portrayals of people just like them in the fiction they fall in love with.

There’s a lot to appreciate about When the Moon Was Ours. If you enjoy beautiful prose (think Catherynne M. Valente, Margo Lanagan, or Franny Billingsley), then Anna-Marie McLemore’s style of writing is right up your alley. And if the book doesn’t necessarily grab you right away, I urge you to stick with it. Thanks to its magical worldbuilding, complex characterization, and deft handling of a transgender lead, When The Moon Was Ours has a lot to offer. I can see why it won the 2016 Triptee Award.

1 Comment

  • Shara White May 31, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    I adore this book cover, and I’m going to have to sit down and read this book. I’m glad of the warning of a slow start. These days, my attention wanders easily, so it’s good to know it’s worth sticking with the book!


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