When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

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“Now that he knew [she] was like him, he understood, and she knew that both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it” (McLemore 2016, pp. 101 – 102).

“‘We don’t get to become who we are for nothing. It costs something. You’re fighting for every little piece of yourself. And maybe I got all of me at once but I lose everything else. Don’t you dare think there’s any water in the world that makes this easy'” (McLemore 2016, pp. 154-155).

As with most magical realism, this book is rather difficult to describe without giving away the entire plot. I’ll admit that, at first, I had a hard time getting into it; I remember thinking to myself, “What drugs was McLemore on while she was writing this book?” As with most things I read, however, I decided to push through the awkward phase of beginning an unfamiliar book, giving it a chance even though I wasn’t feeling it at first. I am so very glad I did. This book is gorgeously written, with descriptive language and stunning imagery. It feels almost like reading Shakespearean language or a work of complex poetry, and the messages inside are simply beautiful.

When the Moon Was Ours follows the story of two teens, both of whom are known for being the odd ones out in their small town. Samir, nicknamed “Sam” or “Moon,” is known best for painting and hanging moons all over town and in the forest, moons that help young children sleep at night. Miel was discovered when she was only five years old, toppling out of an old and rusted water tower as it was torn down. This, however, is not the only strange thing about Miel; she is best known for growing roses out of her wrists, roses that will not wilt or die after being plucked. Also in town are the mysterious Bonner sisters, four inseparable girls believed by the rest of the town to be witches. For many years, they were able to charm any boy in town, but after one of the sisters is sent away for getting pregnant, the sisters seem to lose their mysterious powers. Desperate, they seek out Miel, believing her roses have special powers. The sisters begin to blackmail Miel, threatening to share every secret she’s tried desperately hard to hide if she doesn’t give up the flowers that grow from her wrists. What follows is a slowly unraveling mystery, as both Miel and Sam attempt to discover who they really are.

This book was, in a word, trippy. During the first few chapters alone, there is a girl growing flowers from her wrists, pumpkins turning into glass, and a woman who cures people of their love-sickness by creating a magic potion and literally pulling it out of their bodies. I wondered more than once what on earth was going on, and initially thought I’d made a big mistake in choosing this book to review. Though I enjoyed Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap and Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, magical realism is still sometimes hard for me to grasp. It took a little while for me to get used to the style of writing, and I had to read slowly and carefully to make sure I didn’t miss any details about the plot. This book definitely lends itself to repeat readings, as I’m sure there are many things I missed the first time around.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the way it took me out of my comfort zone, transporting me to a world that resembles our own but seems almost like a really bizarre dream. Many of the elements (such as pumpkins turning into glass) don’t make a lot of sense, but the story itself hearkens back to old folklore and cultural practices. One such practice is the idea of bacha posh, “a cultural practice in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in which families who have daughters but no sons dress a daughter as a boy. This daughter then acts as a son to the family. As an adult, a bacha posh traditionally returns to living as a girl, now a woman” (McLemore 2016, p. 272). I was absolutely fascinated by this phenomenon, as I know very little about Afghani culture and couldn’t imagine growing up as a boy. Samir, who comes from this culture, imagines himself as a bacha posh, but feels he can never go back to living as a girl after being a boy for so long. McLemore goes on to explain that “often a bacha posh has difficulty adjusting to her role as an adult woman after years of living as a boy” (p. 272). Though I don’t believe the word transgender is ever uttered in this book, it’s very clear that Sam is undertaking a very powerful journey towards understanding his identity throughout the novel. I thought it was interesting to see this very personal journey tied into the practices of another culture, as it adds to the diversity and stylistic nuances of the book.

In addition to the elements of Pakistani and Afghani culture, there are also elements of mestiza culture. Miel and Aracely (the woman who takes Miel in after she is found) not only use Spanish phrases throughout the book, but portions of the mythology (such as the mother trying to drown her child to expel dark spirits) come directly from this culture (as the author explains in the author’s note at the end). I can only imagine the sheer amount of research the author did into both of these cultures, and how much work it must’ve taken to portray them accurately. I’m honestly not sure if roses growing from someone’s wrist or curing someone of love-sickness through magic are traditions from any particular culture’s mythology, but I have a feeling they’re connected in some way to the traditions McLemore  is pulling from throughout the novel.

Another thing this novel helped me to understand was the plight of two teenagers who love each other coming to terms with their sexual and gender identities. Before I realized Sam was transgender, I had no issue with the (very tastefully written) sex scenes in the book. Once I knew he was physically a girl, however, I’m ashamed to say that I felt a bit uncomfortable reading about their romance. I kept wondering, “Well how does that even work?” and my curiosity was piqued. Even though I felt I was already pretty open-minded about LGBT issues, this story helped open my eyes and my mind a little bit more, and for that I’m grateful to McLemore. It’s entirely possible to feel like a certain gender without having the genitalia to match, and it’s entirely possible to be attracted to someone who doesn’t have the genitalia you expect for that gender. I generally avoid thinking about what sex and dating might be like for someone who is transgender, mostly because I understand that it’s none of my business but also because I don’t want to think too hard about it. This fictional tale of two teens fighting to be together despite these circumstances allowed me to examine these issues without hurting anyone else or invading personal space, and I think this novel is a great way to help explain gender and sexuality to someone who has a very close-minded view of these concepts. This book taught me that, despite my progressive views, I don’t know everything about the LGBT community, and that this is perfectly okay. The important thing for allies to understand is that we don’t know everything, and we need to make our best efforts to listen to the plights of others in an effort to understand their feelings better.

As Miel herself explains in the novel, “[E]ven if they were the same inside their jeans, he was so different from her that she could not imagine his body as her own… No matter what their bodies had in common, she and Sam were not the same” (p. 182). If this book could help me to understand this sometimes difficult concept, I can only imagine how much it might help someone struggling with his or her own gender identity, or someone questioning their own sexuality because they happen to love someone who is transgender. Though Miel loves Sam, and is constantly teased by the Bonner sisters for “liking girls,” she does not consider herself to be a lesbian. She sees Sam as he wants to be seen, as a boy in every way. To me, this creates a beautiful love story, as it shows that the right person will accept you no matter what, despite your deepest flaws and insecurities. This book explores love and gender identity in very meaningful ways, and I think it could do a lot of good for a teen who is going through some of the same issues.

Magical realism is certainly an acquired taste, and it’s not right for everyone, especially reluctant readers (who might want to start with something easier to comprehend before diving into this work). This book seems more suited to people who feel as though they’ve read everything, and want to try something challenging or different. It’s perfect for people like me, who love the craft of writing and enjoy exploring new and poetic styles. McLemore is excellent at playing with language, and conveying the story in unconventional ways. The book starts slow and is pretty difficult to get into, but if you can stick with it, the story will pay off ten-fold. This was a truly beautiful work of fiction, and one that I’m very glad I gave a chance. If you’re ever feeling adventurous, or just want to give something new and unusual a try, then this is a perfect story for you. It also explores sensitive issues in an extremely real and heartfelt way, and I think it could do a great deal to help teens feel more comfortable in their own skin. In the end, I leave you with the author’s words, from her dedication at the beginning of the book:

“To the boys who get called girls,

the girls who get called boys,

and those who live outside these words.

To those called names, 

and those searching for names of their own.

To those who live on the edges,

and in the spaces in between.

I wish for you every light in the sky.”

(McLemore 2016)

Reference:

McLemore, A.-M. (2016). When the moon was ours. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

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