Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Published: September 2015
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.
She also has a secret.
Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.
When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.
Georgia was the place to be for gold miners before word got around that California was filled with the precious metal. Leah Westfall’s family were just fine in their town — until someone got a whiff of her secret and murdered her parents. To protect her secret and run from the one person her parents trusted, Leah disguises as a boy and sets off on the Oregon Trail to California. Passing for a boy comes fairly easily on the trail, what with Leah comfortable with hard labor and harsh conditions, but some secrets can be too burdensome to bear alone.
This is most definitely more historical fiction than fantasy. Leah — Lee, as she’s called by friends and as a boy — may be able to sense gold, and that sense comes in handy a few times throughout her travels on the harsh trail, but even without her uncanny ability the story still stands. She’s a hardworking, strong, determined, no-nonsense kind of character, and that’s enough to help her get by on her frightening journey from Georgia to Missouri, to joining her friend and a company to travel with from Missouri to California.
The evocative writing and developed characters kept me reading, despite the lack of magic in the story. Lee finds being a boy liberating and difficult all at once. People listen to what she says, they let her do what she wants — they trust her mind and body without question. But she doesn’t like to lie, she feels lonely by keeping such a big secret from the women in her company, and she’s not sure who she really is: Leah or Lee. Thankfully her good friend, Jefferson, is there to remind her she can be both, is both.
Canadians, Germans, a preacher and his wife, the Joyners (a family that hired Lee from the beginning on a flatboat to Missouri — keep your eye on Mrs. Joyner), college students, herders, and veterans all make up the company Lee and Jefferson join in Missouri. They all have their reasons to go to California or Oregon, but they tend to work together for the sake of keeping each other (or even, selfishly, themselves) safe. Everything I remember seeing so early on in The Oregon Trail computer game cropped up, too: cholera, measles, wandering children, stampede of buffalo. You name it, it happened. It made me wonder if I could ever give up everything like those pioneers did for the sake of a new life. I’m not sure I’m made of such tough stuff.
In the end, this felt like a solid standalone adventure novel. It’s a story about a journey, from start to finish. Every single day of it, from sunrise to sunset, all the joys and troubles, laughter and heartache. A part of me was bummed there was so little magic — I was promised historical fantasy, and this delivered historical. Nothing wrong with that; this is an excellent historical. But it is not historical fantasy. Upon realizing this is part of a trilogy, I’m looking forward to seeing how the remaining cast of characters, and Lee’s gold-sensing abilities, play out in the future books. (I’ve got my eye on you, Mrs. Joyner.) Maybe the fantasy elements amp up later on.