Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin, is a thoughtful, delightful tale, a quiet little story of awakening and forgiveness that would not only be a great on-its-own book for middle-grade and YA, but would also make a wonderful read-aloud thanks to the folktales at its core. And while it’s definitely aimed at that younger group, don’t assume that means a lack of maturity, for Lin displays a sophisticated sense of both style and structure here.
Our first line, “Rendi was not sure how long the moon had been missing,” introduces us both to the main character as well as to the folktale world we’ll be moving through. We meet Rendi, an angry young stowaway in a wine merchant’s wagon, just as he is discovered and left behind by the angry merchant at the inn of the tiny village of Clear Sky, on the edge of a barren, desolate flatland known as the Stone Pancake.
Hired by Innkeeper Chao as a chore boy, Rendi grudgingly becomes part of the everday life of the inn, forced to daily interact with the innkeeper’s daughter, Peiyi; the mysterious Madame Chang, who shows up out of the blue soon after Rendi’s own arrival; Mr Shan, the old man who eats at the inn every day and who has seemingly lost much of his sense; and Widow Yan, the innkeeper’s longtime neighbor and one-half of their running feud.
Still other characters arrive via the folktales interspersed throughout the novel, beginning with Peiyi’s tale of how the Stone Pancake came to be and what happened to the mountain that once stood there. As the characters tell their stories, we meet the great hero WangYi, his perhaps even greater wife, the Sage of the Mountain, Magistrate Tiger, The Lady in the Moon, and others.
At first, the stories may seem to interrupt the narrative. They may even frustrate the reader a bit, as Starry River of the Sky contains a number of riddles to be solved: who is Rendi and why is he running/hiding? What has happened to Peiyi’s brother? Why are Innkeeper Chao and Widow Yan always fighting? What has happened to Mr. Shan? Who is this enigmatic and beautiful Madame Chang? And of course, what has happened to the moon?
But if at first the stories, despite their wonderfully voiced tone and style, seem all too separate from the main narrative, soon the reader (and even one or two of the characters) begins to realize that they are in fact deeply connected. The stories sometimes lead one into the other, sometimes double-back on themselves, commenting on each other and even sometimes reversing themselves completely. And as we hear them, we start to notice what they reveal of the storyteller and/or of the listeners and begin to see how the stories begin to reach into the “real” world Rendi inhabits.
Eventually, what seemed at first a series of discrete tales resolves themselves into a tightly woven tapestry, one threaded with evocative symbols and bittersweet emotions and creating a picture of sophisticated wisdom simply told. Though perhaps a tapestry isn’t the best analogue, as one of the book’s themes is change; after all, even the Starry River of the Sky changes: the moon waxes and wanes, the sun rises and sets, the starts change overhead. And so people too can learn to change, must grow, even if such growth sometimes brings sadness. So if it’s a tapestry, let’s say an unfinished one, though still quietly, beautifully moving despite or perhaps because of its being unfinished.
Lin’s voice, a sort of lyrical simplicity, wonderfully matches the slow pace and quietly charming nature of the story. And the exact same phrasing could be used to describe her illustrations, especially the bright little full-color gems that pepper the novel.
Starry River of the Sky is itself a gem: carefully constructed and crafted, not a page too long, with a just-right ending, language and pictures wonderfully matched to characters and story, and an author wholly in control from start to finish. Just a lovely read and highly recommended.