Friendship, Diversity and Adventure in Stacey Lee's Under a Painted Sky
A fantastic historical novel is a special thing--and I sometimes feel like it's a unicorn situation. The last historical novel I loved (that wasn't a verse novel) was Jennifer Donnelly's luminous A Northern Light and that was quite awhile ago.
Fortunately, Stacey Lee's debut young adult historical novel about two girls on the Oregon Trail in the early 1800s, Under a Painted Sky, landed in my mailbox at just the right time, as it was the historical novel I've been looking for for ages and ages.
Father always said, If you cannot be brave, then imagine you are someone else who who is. So I imagine myself as him, my optimistic father, whose steps never wavered, whose face never hid in shadows. Lifting my chin, I march after Andy as if my cares were few and my outlook, golden.
Under a Painted Sky starts off with a bang, with narrator Samantha--a skilled violinist of Chinese descent--being left with no choice but to flee her Missouri town. Dashed are her dreams of moving back to New York and pursuing a music career. Instead, she and runaway slave Annamae strike out west on the the Oregon Trail, bent on evading capture and staying safe on the lawless frontier. To protect themselves, they dress as boys and claim the names Sammy and Andy. Soon, they meet up with a group of three young cowboys headed in the same direction, and this band of misfits forms an unlikely sort of family.
Like Father always said, breathing is underrated.
There's so much to love about this story that I could touch on--and many early reviews already have: it's got gripping adventure, human drama and a beautiful story of friendship, not to mention a too-rarely seen portrayal of the real diversity of the frontier American West. Annamae and Samantha's friendship is one of the more nuanced YA friendships I've read in a long time. There's something special about these girls and their understanding of each other and their slow-burn development of trust and loyalty through their circumstances.
It's also notable how Lee tackles the multilayered nature of her cast of characters' diverse identities. Sammy, for example, is Chinese American, but she also identifies culturally with her father's adopted French culture. One of the cowboys, Peety, is of Mexican descent, while Cay and West, the other cowboys, are straight up Texans. And, of course, there's Annamae/Andy, whose life is always at risk for daring to be free. While among each other they more of less function on equal footing (though even in that case, there's a slow growth of trust and understanding that makes the story so much richer), when they encounter other people on the frontier, all of the social hierarchies, racism and danger of the "real world" roar up and threaten them.
Many of our ideas about the American West have been formed by popular media that in no way reflects the actual reality. As someone who has more than an idle interest in the history of the frontier, it's important to me the Lee's novel reveals a history of which we need to see more.
Oh please God, I know I shouldn’t be asking you for help in killing, but please let these bullets fly true.
You know I've railed about the frequency of a dearth of real consequences and high stakes in young adult fiction, and I was thrilled that in Under a Painted Sky, these young people have to make tough choices, do morally ambiguous at best things and wrestle with the very real consequences of those actions. In a category with far too many teenage assassins who never actually kill anyone, it's a small but important breath of fresh air that made me feel like the author had a tremendous amount of respect for her audience while creating this story.
Under a Painted Sky is the sort of book I would have loved to have had when I was young (not that it wasn't wholly enjoyable as an adult). I was fascinated by western and frontier stories back then, but there were scant few on the shelves twenty years, excepting a couple of series that had a religious focus. Even today there aren't many of these sorts of novels, and I'd love to see more. Beyond that, I cannot wait to see what Stacey Lee does next. She's a phenomenal storytelling who crafts vivid characters I was sad to leave when I turn the last page of Under a Painted Sky.
Under a Painted Sky is out on March 17, 2015. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Bonus: Check out Pop! Goes the Reader's fab Under a Painted Sky desktop wallpaper--I adore it so much!