Author: Stacey Lee
Find the author: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest
Also by this author: Outrun the Moon, The Secret of a Heart Note
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication date: March 17th 2015
Source: Purchased at Chapters Indigo
A powerful story of friendship and sacrifice, for fans of Code Name Verity
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail. This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.
Review: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee was on so many bloggers’ favorites lists for 2015, and was on my own highly anticipated reads…and then I didn’t read it for ages. Thank goodness for my book club having it as the pick for Jan/Feb, because I really, really needed to read this one, and I think you will, too.
Under A Painted Sky is the story of Samantha Young, a Chinese girl living in Missouri on a border town to the Oregon Trail in 1849. She’s been pretty sheltered for most of her life, even though, as a Chinese girl in America, she’s definitely living with a lot of discrimination and prejudice. Her father was adopted by a French man, and has passed on his love of language and talent for music to Samantha, who plays violin and wishes to make music her career.
At the beginning of the book, Samantha is at odds with her father, who wishes to take them further west to California to meet their family friend, Mr. Trask. Unfortunately, Samantha’s father dies in a fire at the dry goods store they own, and Samantha is alone and friendless. After a terrifying encounter with her father’s (former) landlord, Samantha is suddenly on the run with a black maid from a nearby inn, Annamae, with nothing but their wits to get them out west. On their way, they meet three cowboys who they trick into bringing them along on their journey by cross-dressing as boys.
Beautifully written, with descriptions that had me longing to take the road, and characters that were strong and full of charisma, Under a Painted Sky was a wonderful read. The adventures and encounters the characters have are breathtaking and captivating, with everything from a stampede to highwaymen to storms in their path. While it took me a little while to get used to the language and the rhythm of the novel, once I did, I savoured the descriptions, landscape, and action that author Stacey Lee paints for us.
In a setting that – let’s be honest – typically does not include Asians, Stacey Lee did an amazing job of showing us how Samantha’s Chinese traditions and upbringing affected her state of mind. One of the running themes of the book is luck and how it relates to your sign in the Chinese zodiac. Lee deftly winds this through the novel without beating us over the head with it. Similarly, Annamae’s story and character is deeply affected by her existence as a black slave and maid, and her family who is attempting to get away through the Underground Railroad. Both girls were sensitively drawn, and together, they were a strong and diverse team who learned and survived and needed each other in a way that completely warmed my heart.
And when the characters begin to fall for the cowboys…SWOONS, guys. And lots of misunderstandings. But seriously, SWOONS.
But while the characters were on point (as well as plenty of other things, see the bonuses below) I couldn’t ignore a few of the plot inconsistencies, the biggest one being Samantha’s upbringing vs her character. Samantha was shockingly naive about men and street smarts. At the beginning of the novel, Samantha is seen walking home alone after giving violin lessons, and for a lady to be unescorted on a border town…I just can’t see that she wouldn’t at least have some kind of awareness of the dangers around her.
And yet, when she and Annamae are on the road, she’s pretty unaware of all of the dangers around her, and pretty naive about the ways that men can treat women. While I can understand that she was sheltered, the book tells us that Samantha grew up in New York. Even if there was a Chinese community there, I can’t imagine that the streets of New York weren’t pretty tough at that time. To me (and my book club), there was a glaring difference between what we are told that Samantha is raised as, and who she was throughout the novel. And that tended to be a bit hard to swallow.
The other thing is a spoiler, so highlight if you’ve read already: View Spoiler »It really felt just extraordinarily lucky that the girls stumbled on the nicest cowboys in existence, and how the trail, while dangerous, wasn’t really as scary as I expected it to be. I kind of wished that it had been more difficult, because for the most part, the girls were pretty safe. That might have been because they were protected by the other guys, but I felt that undermined just how strong the girls could have been on their own. « Hide Spoiler
Despite these inconsistencies, though, this book is incredibly well-written, with descriptions that never felt cliched. I really appreciated that we got to see a diverse set of characters interacting and having the kind of adventures both terrifying and exciting that you would expect in the Wild West.
The Wild West and the Oregon Trail: Obviously, this is the selling point of this book, and it holds up. Although I’m not a huge Western fan, I loved seeing this part of American history, with the covered wagons, the open trail, and the search for gold (warning, though: no actual gold digging happens in this book!).
Heart-Squeezing Romance: This is angsty romance at its best, because Samantha has never really had these feelings for a guy before, and her love interest, West, appears to be totally confused by his attraction to a Chinese boy. The way that these two interact is so full of longing and yearning that you’ll fall in love, too.
Cross-Dressing Characters: Guys, I’ve always had a thing for the girls-dressing-as-guys (and vice-versa) trope – probably stems from reading too much Shakespeare. I loved Annamae/Andy’s lessons to Samantha/Sammy on being a dude, and the complexities of trying to hide their true selves from the boys.
The Gang’s All Here: Found families are one of my favorite things in all literature, but especially YA, and this one is done SO well. I don’t even want to say anything else other than, if you like motley crews, this one is for you.
Book Theme Song:
I’m a dead man walking here
But that’s the least of all my fears
Ooh, underneath the water
It’s not Alabama clay
That gives my trembling hands away
Please forgive me father
Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e’er I go
Won’t do me no good washing in the river
Can’t no preacher man save my soul
Miles and miles in my bare feet
Still can’t lay me down to sleep
If I die before I wake
I know the Lord my soul won’t take
Keep walking and running and running for miles
I know it’s about Alabama and not the Oregon Trail, but there’s something about the feel of this song, and the fact that it’s about a person running away from their demons that just fits Samantha’s state of mind.
The Final Word:
Look, I can’t deny that there are quite a few plot inconsistencies that didn’t work for me in Under a Painted Sky, but it was so well-written, with descriptions and landscapes grotesque and beautiful, and with so much to the characters that I was completely won over. One of the most original historical YA books I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading Stacey Lee’s upcoming sophomore novel, Outrun the Moon (about the San Francisco earthquake!), as soon as I can.
UNDER A PAINTED SKY is available in bookstores now. Have you read it? Do you like Westerns or historical YA? Did you see the same inconsistencies as I did? Let me know in the comments!