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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Magical Realism

Time of plot: Present

Locale: A small farming town

Principal characters

Samir, also known as Sam or Moon, a Italian-Pakistani teen who paints moon lanterns

Yasmin, his mother

Miel , also known...

(The entire section contains 963 words.)

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Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Magical Realism

Time of plot: Present

Locale: A small farming town

Principal characters

Samir, also known as Sam or Moon, a Italian-Pakistani teen who paints moon lanterns

Yasmin, his mother

Miel, also known as Honey, a Latina teen who sprouts roses from her wrist

Aracely, Miel's guardian, a curandera

Leandro, Miel's older brother

The Bonner sisters, also known as Chloe, Lian, Ivy, and Peyton, beautiful sisters who are suspected of having secret powers

The Story

Anna-Marie McLemore's novel When the Moon Was Ours is set in a fantastical small town. The plot revolves around main characters Sam and Miel when they are teenagers, but McLemore begins her story years earlier, when Miel first appears in the town. After knocking over an old, unused water tower, the townspeople are shocked and horrified to discover a little girl spilling out with the fetid, brown water. Sam, a young boy, is the first person to approach her. His gesture cements a deep friendship that blossoms, when they are teenagers, into romantic love. Courtesy of Macmillan

Miel lives with Aracely, a young curandera who sells cures for lovesickness. Miel loves eating honey off a spoon, but has a strange fear of pumpkins. Every few weeks, the small scar on her wrist sprouts a thorny rose. Sam and his mother, Yasmin, both from Pakistan, live nearby. Sam paints delicate moon lanterns lit with candles and hangs them all over town. At the beginning of the book, Miel and Sam make love for the first time, after which the reader learns what only Sam, Yasmin, Miel, and Aracely know—that Sam is a transgender boy. In his mind, he is a bacha posh, part of an Afghan and Pakistani cultural tradition that his grandmother told him about in which a family with only daughters chooses one of them to live as a son. Traditionally, upon reaching adulthood the bacha posh resumes living as a woman. As a teenager, Sam is not sure if he wants to follow that part of the bacha posh tradition.

One night, when Miel is cutting a fully grown rose from her wrist and throwing it in the river as an offering to her dead mother, she witnesses a strange interaction involving one of the book's antagonists, Ivy Bonner. The four red-headed Bonner sisters, "las gringas bonitas," are rumored to be witches because they can make any boy fall in love with them. At least, they used to be able to. Chloe, the oldest sister, has just come back to town after having a baby, and the sisters are struggling to reassert their powers. After Miel accidentally sees a boy turning Ivy down, Miel reaches out in friendship, but Ivy and her sisters want something else—Miel's roses. The Bonner sisters are convinced that the power of the roses will help them reclaim the stature they have lost.

The sisters take one rose from Miel, and when she refuses to give the second, they lock her in a stained-glass coffin in the woods. Miel escapes with help from the youngest Bonner sister, Peyton, who owes Sam for covering for her, pretending the two are studying, when she is really enjoying trysts with her various girlfriends. The tension between the Bonner sisters and Miel results in half the pumpkins on the Bonner family farm turning to glass. Meanwhile, Sam recognizes a resemblance between Miel and Aracely. Aracely reveals the truth to him: she is also transgender and is Miel's long-lost older sibling, formerly her brother, Leandro.

Aracely recalls that her mother tried to "cure" Miel of her roses by stuffing her into a hollowed out pumpkin and holding her under water in the river. When Miel was carried away by the current, both Aracely and their mother tried to save her, but only Aracely, aged and changed by the magic river, survived. Miel soon learns the truth. The Bonner sisters, still pressuring her for roses, find out about Sam and threaten to reveal his birth certificate and that he was assigned female at birth. At the end of the book, Miel and Sam confront the Bonner sisters together, and each person reveals their truth, destroying the glass coffin. Sam tells his mother he wants to continue to live as a boy; Miel and Aracely mend their relationship.

Critical Evaluation

When the Moon Was Ours won the 2016 James Tiptree Jr. Award, was named a 2017 Stonewall Honor book, and was longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, among other honors. McLemore's other books include The Weight of Feathers (2015), and Wild Beauty (2017). When the Moon Was Ours received a starred review from Kirkus; the reviewer praised McLemore's "luxurious language," writing that readers "will be ensnared in this ethereal narrative long before they even realize the net has been cast." A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly described McLemore's language as "lush, reverential," but warned that "the story's momentum can suffer as a result" of this rich telling. Indeed, some plot points are lost in the thicket of McLemore's dense descriptions, and sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between poetic metaphor and, in a world where roses grow out of wrists, poetic reality. Nevertheless, When the Moon Was Ours provides a powerful and surprisingly tender exploration of identity and love.

Further Reading

  • McLemore, Anna-Marie. "Anna-Marie McLemore." Interview by Jill Ratzan. BookPage, 4 Oct. 2016, bookpage.com/interviews/20517-anna-marie-mclemore#.WuC5IIjwYdU. Accessed 25 Apr. 2018.
  • Review of When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Aug. 2016, p. 144. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=117663219&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.
  • Rev. of When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore. Publishers Weekly 17 Oct. 2016, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-250-05866-9. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.
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