I'd wanted to read this book for a long time because in my head I'd heard it was historical and was a story about a Chinese girl. Somehow, my mind equated "historical fiction" with an absolutely parallel true-to-life tale of someone back in time. I think a lot of people do that, almost expect a documentary novel, despite the word "fiction" tied up with the "historical," thus their hesitation to read historical fiction. I'm glad Stacey Lee remembered the fictional part.
What's not fictional? That there were Chinese-American people in the U.S. in 1849. That there were African American people who were free in some states and slaves in others, and depending on if someone dragged you across state lines, your existence was tenuous and often depending upon the kindness of strangers, subterfuge, and lawless behavior. That there were young men seeking their fortune on the Oregon Trail, that there were cowboys and miners heading West in a steady stream -- and that sometimes loners found families and the broken found healing along the trail.
Summary: At the mercy of various circumstances, two bright and determined girls end up alone -- Samantha, a fifteen-year-old whose father had been pondering a move West, dies suddenly and tragically, and Annamae, a sixteen-year-old slave whose family has been ripped from her all at once, has finally decided to make a move to find her only remaining family. Disaster follows disaster, and chance throws the two girls together, though Annamae just knows something higher than mere Fate is in the cards for the two of them. Shedding their female appearance, the girls decide to head West as "Sammy" and "Andy." They find their backbones and their grit -- and the limits of their skill -- as they make the dangerous and terrifying journey, but their luck changes when they meet a group of cowboys - boys with skill and strength in numbers, who become, in return for help with the cooking, the fire-building, and a few language lessons - protection and help along the trail. While the girls are safer, nowhere is exactly "safe" for a runaway slave and a fugitive -- and the girls don't dare trust anyone to truly help them. Samantha is terrified of one more loss, and wants to keep Anname close, but Annamae is stubbornly determined to find her family and the heart of her world -- at whatever cost. This tale of losses, chosen family, friendship, and survival may carry few surprises but a lot of enjoyment.
Peaks: The cover of this novel - with silhouetted "cowboys," one of whom is carrying a violin - is just beautiful. I love that this novel is a Western based on the Oregon Trail -- that was a huge thing we studied in school, and the romance of the trail is still a big thing in my head - despite the fact that eating dust for six months, possibly starving, getting bug-bitten and achy from either walking or riding and risking cholera and bandit attacks are hardly romantic.
I love that Sammy and Andy are not Victorians, cringing at every crudity - nor does the novel linger over the assumed messiness or crudeness of males - some guys are neat, some are not, just like girls, and the story fairly reveals this equality. I love that this novel has the girls just embrace their toughness, and not worry about returning to some more "delicate" state. I love that this novel has an Asian girl and a black girl riding a horse and roping things and cowboying up. It's important that we're able to stretch our imagination to include other faces and genders in the pantheon of our Old West images. I love that the novel just ...ambled along. There was dramatic tension, of course, and there were times when it was easier to put the novel down than others -- but once you got hooked/lost, you were in, and the current simply took you away.
That this is also a love story may surprise some readers - while I wasn't necessarily in need of a love story which tied up so tidily in Happily Ever Afterland, I know that its muted dramatic tension will help some readers love a good adventure-Oregon Trail tale that much more. If you find that you don't "get" some of the interactions halfway through the novel, don't let it throw you.
Valleys: I had trouble getting into the novel in part, I think, because the voice didn't really settle until a little ways into the tale. Samantha's "trying to be a boy" voice changed fairly drastically - she used words like "disingenuous" conversationally in the novel's opening, yet was down to "ain't" a few pages on. Yet, Annamae, who used the odd contraction(?) of "you's" to mean both "you is" and the plural "you" nevertheless understood the word "disingenuous" without comment - which jumped out at me as odd -- especially since Annamae is a slave girl who can't read and counts unreliably on her fingers. Neither dialect was comfortably settled until the middle of the book, when the plot made such details less jarring.
I struggled a little bit with the character of Annamae. It's hard for me to sometimes see novels where the African American character is just... so... wise. While both girls were full of aphorisms and proverbs, Samantha's seemed to appear more organically than did Annamae's - and they were just IN Sammy's head. Annamae seemed to dream them up for the specific purpose of enlightening Samantha -- arguably, she was accustomed to doing that for her little brother, who had a hard time with the drudgery of slavery, as her older brother had done for her, but her convenient wisdom still didn't always come across as "non-magical" for me.
Conclusion: Thought the tiniest bit unsure of its voice in the beginning, this was a fun and ultimately very satisfying debut novel from the author - and I'm excited to be drawn into a new way to imagine early America, and look forward to more tales from her keyboard.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!