“And she told me a story yesterday/About the sweet love between the moon and the deep blue sea”
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)
Someday, he and Miel would be nothing but a fairy tale. When they were gone from this town, no one would remember the exact brown of Miel’s eyes, or the way she spiced recado rojo with cloves, or even that Sam and his mother were Pakistani. At best, they would remember a dark-eyed girl, and a boy whose family had come from somewhere else. They would remember only that Miel and Sam had been called Honey and Moon, a girl and a boy woven into the folklore of this place.
The closer she got to him, the more she felt it in her roses, like a moon pulling on a sea.
Miel and Samir are the odd ones out in their small town. In a sea of white faces, their brown skin marks them as different (she, Latina; he, Pakistani); and in this tight-knit community, their outsider status is only compounded by the fact that they were not born here.
Sam’s story is somewhat mundane, or so he thinks: his mother, Yasmin, arrived in search of work. Miel’s origins are a bit more fantastical and mysterious: as a child, she arrived on a wave of rust-brown water, spit out by the abandoned water tower when it was deemed a safety hazard and finally brought down. Angry and hysterical (and no doubt disoriented), Miel kicked and screamed; something about losing the moon. Just a child himself, Sam was the only one brave enough to approach this dangerous, feral girl. He wrapped her in his jacket, soothed her with her voice, and returned the moon to her, one hand-painted, candle-lit orb at a time.
From that point on, they were inseparable, each one half of a whole: Miel and Samir. Honey and Moon. The cursed girl from whose wrist roses grow, and the boy who everyone insists on calling a girl. The girl who’s terrified of pumpkins and water, and the boy who helps pumpkins grow.
A decade or so has passed, and Miel and Sam’s relationship has only deepened – possibly into something romantic. Just as they’re exploring this new form of togetherness, however, Miel finds herself in the crosshairs of the dangerous and alluring Bonner sisters, las gringas bonitas: Chloe, Lian, Ivy, and Peyton; so close they’re like a single organism in four red-headed bodies. Rumor has it that the girls are witches, capable of stealing the heart of any man or boy she desires. They keep Miel’s adopted mother, Aracely, in work; she is a curandera who deals in lovesickness.
When Ivy fails to seduce a boy – a first – she gets it into her head that Miel’s roses will restore the girls’ power, and keep their reputation intact. But Miel is unwilling to let the Bonner sisters take this part of herself: “Her body was not a garden.” Thus begins a rather horrifying game of cat and mouse, where lies cut much more deeply than a jagged piece of glass (whether from a field of pumpkins turned to glass, or a stained-glass coffin in the woods).
When the Moon Was Ours is a strange and magical story about love and loss, and being true to yourself – even if it means letting some things go. It has the feel of a fairy tale, but is also strongly rooted in contemporary fiction. (Magical realism, then?) McLemore seamlessly blends the more fantastical and real-world elements of the story to create something that’s wondrous yet still tangible.
The main and supporting characters are all complex and well-developed. At first I worried that the Bonner sisters would be reduced to archetypal “evil” women, who wield their sexuality like a weapon, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. (THAT ENDING!) Sam’s mom Yasmin is the sort of mom I want for everyone, and her backstory is pretty amazing. She’s a lady who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go out and get it, no matter what others might say about her. Her love for Sam is evident in the patient, compassionate way she lets him decide his own truth, however long it may take. Aracely, the golden-haired woman whose arrival was preceded by thousands of butterflies, is even more awesome. Though I guessed at her origins (albeit only a few pages before the big reveal), it was marvelous and lovely to behold all the same.
But it’s Miel and Sam – a thousand times Sam – who really steal the show. Miel’s childhood remains a mystery for most of the story and, while the buildup proved a little frustrating at times, it was worth it. She grows from a timid girl to a fierce young woman, willing to go to battle to protect her friends, her family, and her bodily autonomy.
And Sam. I worry about dropping a spoiler here, except the synopsis mentions a trans character. Raised on his grandmother’s stories – of princes and fairies; her family’s saffron farm in Kashmir; and of the practice of bacha posh, temporarily treating a girl as a boy in a family without any – Sam draws on these tales, in varying degrees, later in life. He calms Miel with stories, particularly of the moons he hangs between their houses, and all over town, to keep children’s nightmares at bay. As he pollinates pumpkins at the Bonner’s farm, he is reminded of his ancestors’ delicate work. And in the stories of bacha posh, carried from Afghanistan to Pakistan, he finds inspiration.
I was first introduced to the bacha posh tradition through Jenny Nordberg’s 2014 book, The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, and have been fascinated with it ever since. Bacha posh blurs the line between male and female, while paradoxically reinforcing rigid gender roles. There are several books, both fiction and non, about bacha posh on my TBR list – Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell; I Am a Bacha Posh by Ukmina Manoori; and Maria Toorpakai’s A Different Kind of Daughter immediately come to mind, but I feel like I’m missing a few – yet I have to keep putting them off due to time constraints. So it was pretty shiny to see bacha posh pop up in another book when I least expected it!
Sam is not a bacha posh, not exactly; rather, he uses the practice as a bridge between his “shadow sister,” Samira, and the new identity he eventually forges for himself. It’s easier to tell his mother – and himself – that he’s only “playing” at being a boy, for the family. He hopes that, once he reaches adulthood, he’ll want to be a girl. But at seventeen, it just isn’t happening.
While most bacha posh do make the rocky transition into womanhood, Nordberg also profiles a few defiant women who refused to relinquish the power that passing as male afforded them. They forfeited marriage and children in favor of freedom. At least one – Shahed – eventually came to identify as male: “a survival strategy that turned into an identity.” In contrast, Sam considered himself a boy well before he started wearing jeans and cutting his hair short. Anyway, it’s certainly a unique way of incorporating a little-known practice (in Western cultures, that is; in Afghanistan, Nordberg reports that it’s just not spoken of) into a much larger story about identity, family, and love.
McLemore’s writing is lyrical and lovely; if you enjoyed her debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, then chances are you’ll dig When the Moon Was Ours too. Both books have a weird, otherworldly vibe, and it’s hard not to draw parallels between Cluck, the boy who sprouts feathers, and Miel, who grows roses from her wrist.
The descriptions of organic pumpkins and man-made moons – blue and rose, gold and silver; seemingly every color under the rainbow – are rich and vibrant. Miel and Sam’s world is so colorful that, by story’s end, I’d started to imagine what it might look like as a graphic novel, or an animated film (or even a live action one come alive with a generous touch of CGI). However, the descriptions are so frequent and lengthy that they start to feel a little redundant after a while. Really that’s my only complaint.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: YES! Sam and his mother Yasmin are of Pakistani descent. Sam is a trans boy who used the practice of bacha posh as a sort of excuse to shed his identity of Samira in favor of Samir: because it’s just him and his mother, and she needs a man in the house, especially when they’re the subject of racist bullying. Now that he’s reaching the age where a bacha posh traditionally goes back to living as a girl, Sam must come to terms with his identity, as well as his burgeoning romance with Miel, his best friend and the girl next door. Yasmin is agnostic.
Miel is Latina. Her father left the family when she was little, unable to handle the “curse” of the roses that grow from her wrist. On the advice of priests and señoras, Miel’s mom tried to cure her: first by leaving her in the hollowed-out shell of a pumpkin, then by drowning the demons (and Miel) in a river. Miel struggled and was swept away; both her mom and her older brother Leandro died trying to save her (or so she thought).
Miel’s adopted mother, Aracely, is really her brother Leandro – who, unbeknownst to Miel, was/is a trans woman. The river took him too; whereas Miel ended up in a water tower, it transformed Leandro into the woman she always knew she was, and washed her up on shore.
Peyton, the youngest of the Bonner sisters, likes girls more than boys; Sam has been covering for her, telling her parents that he’s tutoring her in math when really she’s making out with Jenna Shelby or Liberty Hazelton.
When Chloe became pregnant at nineteen, her parents sent her away to have the baby. She left Clara with her aunt to raise.
Clark Anderson slept with Ivy because he thought it might rid him of his desire for John Sweden – but it didn’t, and he “disappeared” from town the very next week.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a