Under a Painted Sky is author Stacey Lee's debut novel about two young girls attempting to hide in plain sight on the Oregon Trail. It is a crazy adventure with two unlikely companions at the lead, in a world that has left them little else except each other.
The Situation: It is 1849 and Samantha, a Chinese-American violin player, wants nothing more but to return to New York City and open a conservatory for music. But her father has decided that they will head west to California instead. When she returns home after a day of teaching music lessons, she finds out that tragedy has struck and her father won't be going anywhere. And after fending off a would-be attacker, she finds an unlikely ally in Annamae, a slave who has decided to take her chances and runaway in search of her older brother. Both girls know they will be hunted by authorities on the lookout for a Chinese-American girl and a runaway slave, but staying in Missouri just isn't an option. And neither is heading out on the Oregon Trail alone as two teenage girls who won't be able to defend themselves should someone decide to take advantage.
The Problem: Samantha and Annamae have had enough happen to them already that has pushed them to leave Missouri. But out of desperation and a desire to not be caught, they decide they have no other choice but to pretend to be boys. After adopting the names Sammy and Andy, the pair happen upon a trio of cowboys who are also headed west and don't mind having the pair come along. They also don't seem to mind that Sammy is Asian and Andy is black. Cay, West, and Peety give the young "boys" a sense of comfort and security they would never have had on their own. They even teach them necessary skills that will come in handy along the open trail. But even with their new friends, Sammy and Andy must keep their real identities a secret. And it becomes clear that the Oregon Trail is full of various adventures that make pretending to be a boy the very least of they girls' worries.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in 19th century America when many people were headed west to California, seeking their fortune in gold. For Sammy, it is the opposite direction she was hoping to go as she wanted to go back to New York. For Andy, it is the direction she would have gone anyway as she searches for the brother from whom she was separated in slavery. The two girls end up on the Oregon Trail (like in the iconic game) and join up with a group of cowboys from Texas. Many of the stops they make are stops many children of the 80's will remember from the game. And because Cay, West, and Peety are cowboys, there are lessons in shooting, roping, and horse-riding for their young companions. The group also encounters many other groups and families of varying ethnicities as they travel along the Oregon Trail. At one point they come across a group of rough Scotsmen who don't seem to care too much for anyone. And their little group is fairly diverse as Sammy is Chinese-American (something that often makes her stand out as there aren't many Asians in the Mid-West at this time), Andy is black, Peety is Mexican, and Cay and West are white. This makes for interesting discussions within the group, and also some tension outside of it when they come across certain people. The story more or less reads like a western adventure, but with an unlikely pair at the lead.
My Verdict: Maybe my reading history is limited, but I don't think I have ever read a book quite like this. The idea of a western adventure isn't terribly original. Neither is the idea of having girls dress up as boys to avoid suspicion and stay safe. But putting the two together seems original. And then to have the main protagonist be a Chinese-American girl who knows four languages and plays the violin is something else entirely. Giver her a runaway slave for a companion and this is one heck of a premise to try and follow-through on. However, I think Lee was incredibly successful in taking on this ambitious storyline. And while it is a fun adventure with potential danger in every group of people the travelers come upon, and even sometimes when they are on the trail by themselves, there are also serious moments full of heartbreak in the present, reflection on the past, as well as uncertainty about the future. This is a great book for YA readers looking for something just a little but different.
Favorite Moment: When Andy reaches down and catches a snake with her bare hands, then quickly breaks its neck. Not bad for a girl.
Favorite Character: This is actually kind of difficult as there are several great characters in this book, but I guess it would either come down to Andy or Peety. Andy is the kind of person you would want to have on an adventure like this. She is tough, but gracious and patient, and often the voice of reason. Peety knows how to handle horses better than any of them, and of the three boys he seems to be the least antagonizing to the girls.
Recommended Reading: This was a different kind of YA novel from what I usually cover on this blog. Even so, I think I will recommend Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy. It isn't at all a western adventure, but it is set in 1950s New Orleans and follows a young girl who has her own adventure full of secrets and lurking dangers.