Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Published: March 2015
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
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.
If Samantha just listened to her father’s plan about moving to California, then tragedy would not have left her an orphan — or so she believes. Over the course of one night, Samantha murders a man and is aided by slave Annamae to disguise as boys and flee Missouri. A Chinese girl and runaway slave aren’t easy to hide, so they quickly forge a bond with three cowboys and claim to be heading to California for the gold rush. But these girls-turned-boys, now Sammy and Andy, find they’ve got more to worry about than prices on their heads. The Oregon Trail is no walk in the park, and danger can strike at any moment on the open prairie.
Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.
When I first saw this book on a list of to-watch reads, I latched on immediately to three things: YA historical fiction, west/Oregon Trail, and diverse protagonists. A year ago I said I wanted more historical fiction in YA, more Western themes (even mentioned the Oregon Trail!), more pioneers, more POC as protagonists. And guess what? This book has it. So if you’re looking for something fresh and unique that your mind will cling to long after you finish the book, you want to pick this one up. There’s not enough historical fiction in the YA category, and everyone loves a good adventure. Plus, this troupe has a Chinese girl (and her philosophy really plays a role in the story), a black girl (whose faith is so steadfast, it makes me weep), two white Texans (who are so very American it cracks me up), and one Mexican (whose story I wanted to hear more of). You will fall in love. Also, music. Music and storytelling are massive components to this book.
If eyes left footprints, this man’s face would be worn as a welcome mat.
At first I wondered how Sammy could pull off being a guy. She and Andy are girls with defining feminine features, and Chinese are typically built thinner anyway. The likelihood people could see through their disguise was pretty high, which is why it was so great the three cowboys — Cay, West, and Peety — took them under their wing without asking too many questions. With those guys by their side, teaching them how to ride, shoot, and use rope, Sammy and Andy could take on the whole Oregon Trail and any outlaws they’d stumble across. With each passing day, the guys open up to them, and Sammy noticeably relaxes from a fearful girl dressed as a guy, to a strong-willed girl stretching her wings and independence.
They say time freezes, but I’ve never experienced it until now. I stay like that, lost in his eyes for that eternal moment, and then the dawn breaks, and we are Sammy and West again, boys on the trail.
About a third into the book you begin to wonder if the cowboys have caught on to the girls’ disguises. It’s most visible in West’s demeanor around Sammy. He’s an artistic, tortured, quiet soul, and it speaks to Sammy’s philosophical, musical side. They dance around each other. After several life-threatening events, Sammy’s certain West knows, but at this point in the trail she’s not sure what to believe. The romance is not a major component to the story, yet it’s fraught with emotional turmoil and tension and confusion. It’s a difficult situation, pretending to be someone you’re not, when the people who’ve helped you from the beginning have been nothing but kind, generous, and honest. Truly, all the relationships, platonic or otherwise, were so well-written and believable I can’t help but hope their journey continues beautifully.
It is no easy thing, living under the weight of public scrutiny day after day.
Sammy and Andy are the stars of this book. Forced together under difficult circumstances, a blessing to the other, they grow and bond like no other new friendship I’ve seen in any other book. They’re torn over their paths to freedom: Sammy to California to find the man who was going to help her and her father, Andy to an unmarked, potentially mythical falls, where she would meet her runaway brother. As time passes and the necessity to stay linked to the cowboys becomes apparent, the girls are torn between continuing on those separate journeys or linking them together. It’s incredibly touching, and made doubly so by their shared and yet vastly different life experiences. Sammy’s singled out because she’s Chinese, a foreigner, a marvel to some and scum to others. Andy is singled out — or invisible — because she’s black, a slave girl with a brand on her arm, with no one to believe she’s good and clean and human. They bond over their otherness, and they learn from their differences. And what’s even more beautiful is that West, Peety, and Cay don’t give a lick what these girls (boys?) look like, just that they do their part on the trail.
“Dig in for a second, boys,” breathes Cay. “My eyeballs are full.”
This is a story about friendship and sacrifice, compassion and humanity, philosophy and faith, music and art, danger and bravery, all on the stunning backdrop of the Oregon Trail.