Under a Painted Sky: Review

March 18, 2015 2015, 3.5 star books, historical, Layla 36 ★★★½

Under a Painted Sky: ReviewUnder a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Published by Penguin, Putnam Children's on March 17, 2015
Genres: historical
Pages: 384 pages
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
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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.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

Who here used to play the computer game “Oregon Trail” obsessively as a child? Let’s see a show of hands. Think back fondly on the days you used to carefully select your wagon train, hunt for buffalo, and decide whether you needed to ford the river or caulk your wagon. (Sometimes, when I am driving, I feel like I am rafting down the Columbia River and trying to avoid boulders and like driftwood and stuff. A fun fact about me, I know. If you would like to relive the magic, you can play the game here, btw. It’s not perfect but it sparked my interest in this period of American history as a kid.)

Anyway. When I found out that Under the Painted Sky was about two young women – one Chinese-American, one African-American – who cross-dress as teenage boys in order to navigate the Oregon Trail – I was sold. If that is also all you need to know for you to run to your nearest library or bookstore, stop now and go do that thing. Under the Painted Sky is not without its problems, but it’s a really good book. And it’s even better because it both makes visible the stories of two non-white characters and also shows how they find friendship and family together.

Here’s what I really liked about the book: first of all, Sammy and Andy’s friendship. Samantha and Annamae meet when Samantha (accidentally) murders her corrupt landlord, Ty Yorkshire (who is not only trying to assault her but, though unbeknownst to her at the time, has set the fire that burned her father alive in his dry goods store). Although all Samantha has ever wanted is to return to New York and play violin, she knows how strong local prejudice against her is and knows she needs to escape. She decides to head West and look for a former colleague of her father’s; Annamae, who has been planning to escape her life as a slave, joins her on the Oregon Trail in order to look for her brother. They change their names to Sammy and Andy and, just like that, they’re off. Although they’re thrown together by circumstance, the two girls become quick to defend and protect each other.

Strong female friendships are often my favorite part of any story, but Sammy and Andy’s is especially great. Although they know from the beginning that they’ll have to part ways to pursue their separate goals – Sammy wants to find Mr. Trask, her father’s colleague; Andy wants to find her brother – their growing bond forces them to reconsider what’s most important to them. View Spoiler »

I also liked that the novel focuses on the stories of two non-white characters during a period of American history that is often whitewashed. Under the Painted Sky tries to be really attentive to how racism and xenophobia affects the decisions that Sammy and Andy make both on and off the Oregon Trail, and how both girls negotiate these potentially hostile climates (this is to say that prejudice in the novel is presented as a complicated, multifaceted thing that affects Sammy and Andy differently, first off, and secondly, that the novel also shows how Sammy negotiates a system that is prejudiced against her).

The few problems I had with the novel are mostly around pacing, plotting, and the novel’s romantic relationships, which weren’t particularly well-developed to me. (It’s very much desperate-attraction-at-first-sight, but there’s some anxiety around the fact that Sammy is presenting as male and is also Chinese-American.) There’s just so much other stuff going on – Sammy and Andy are on the run from the law, and desperately trying to locate Andy’s brother and Sammy’s dad’s friend, and they’re dealing with strangers and cholera and all kinds of things! – that I couldn’t really bring myself to care overmuch about the romantic relationship. I did like that both Sammy and Andy find, like, a new family in each other and in their companions, but would have been perfectly happy if this didn’t involve a Happily Ever After for either one of them.

With regards to the pacing and plotting, the novel’s start seemed rushed to me – we’re only a few pages in when the tragic accident that prompts Sammy’s journey West occurs, and that accident might have had more emotional impact for me if we’d had a bit more of a window into her life in St. Joseph, Missouri. We get stuff in flashbacks, later, but I wanted more time to get to know her as a character and a little more time with her father as well. There’s so much backstory that never gets fully explained and seems potentially really fascinating. (Her dad’s a translator who speaks half a dozen languages, most of which he teaches to Sammy, along with teaching her how to play the violin. We know that they move from New York to Missouri and he opens a dry goods store, but there isn’t much more detail than that, and man, I wanted more!) This is also true of the novel’s close – it ends pretty abruptly, to the point where I wondered if my digital copy was missing a hundred pages or so, and there’s so much that seems unresolved that I felt dissatisfied. (If the novel is about finding family, there’s resolution. But everything else? Is pretty much up in the air.)

And on a super minor note, as I tend to be really picky about this, I was really irritated by the midwife character who could identify that Sammy and Andy were really female just by looking: “I’m a midwife. I can tell these things even if the others can’t.” A pet peeve for me in books where the heroines dress as male for reasons is when people can magically discern someone’s true sex, and this does happen a little in this book.

However, on the whole, I did really enjoy Under a Painted Sky and would recommend it. There aren’t nearly enough historical young adult novels set in this time period! And this one is worth looking into if anything in this review sparked your interest.

Have you read Under a Painted Sky? Do you want to?

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An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.






36 Responses to “Under a Painted Sky: Review”

  1. Bethany

    Layla! I really, really liked this book too, for many of the same reasons as you did. Like, very few YA westerns, and even fewer books in general about two minority girls on an adventure like this.

    I feel similarly about the abrupt beginning (I actually went back a page to make sure I hadn’t missed something!) but though the ending was less so… It always felt to me like the goal was maybe less about the destination and more the journey (hahaha SO CLICHE) but especially in regard to the girls’ friendship and the little family they were building with the boys.

    The coupling up was sweet, though a very, very, small part of what made the book great, I feel like… It almost felt like the Andy/Petey couple was more an afterthought… But it did provide a platform to talk more about interracial couples in that day.
    Bethany recently posted…Isla and the Happily Ever After

  2. J. Oh

    Thank you for that thoughtful, well-rounded review. This is a book I’ve been hearing more and more about and I definitely want to give it a try. (Oregon Trail was probably my favorite game as an elementary school kid, and I’m Asian-American.) Sad that the beginning and end are both so abrupt, but I’m really looking forward to getting to know Sammy and Andy! :)

    • Layla

      Oh, awesome. When you read it, I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it.

      I was really invested in the characters and wanted to know more about what their lives were going to be like, so it’s possible that I just thought it ended too quickly because I am always greedy for more detail. :) I do think it’s a great read, though, and man, I love any book with a solid female friendship front-and-center.
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  3. Carina Olsen

    Great review Layla :D I’m curious about this book, as that cover is all kinds of gorgeous. <3 But maybe not my thing.. And it ends too fast? o.O I don't like books like that, lol. But I'm so glad you liked most of this book :D The other parts do sound all kinds of awesome. <3 and the main girls seems amazing :) Thank you for sharing about this book. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #177

    • Layla

      Thanks Carina. Yes, it’s a great cover! Give the book a try if you’re into historical fiction and/or Westerns. If not, you may not enjoy.

      It did end really, really abruptly in my mind. I suspect it is in part because the last 25% of the book is super action-packed, so you don’t really realize how far you’ve gotten in the story and then it’s very suddenly over.

      The main characters are great. I’m glad there’s a book that focuses on stories we don’t often get to hear about this period in American history.
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

      • Carina Olsen

        Yeah, I’m not sure the genre is fully for me, not yet :\ But one day, I hope :) Aw, I do not like it when books end too fast. How mean. But glad you still sort of liked it :)

        Yay for loving that :) Thank you for sharing sweetie. <3
        Carina Olsen recently posted…Review: The Uninvited by Cat Winters

    • Layla

      Hi Donna, glad to hear it was already on your radar! I thought it was pretty good. I hadn’t really seen it mentioned in a lot of places, so I wanted to make sure we covered it! :)
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  4. Jocelyne T

    Ahhh I can always count on The Midnight Garden to introduce me to new books I probably would never have found on my own – thank you! Adding this to my TBR list :) This one sounds intriguing, especially because it’s historical fiction in that time and place with main characters who are visible minorities.

    • Layla

      RIGHT? Your last sentence sums up what drew me to this book in the first place. Definitely add it to your TBR list if those are also things that intrigue you! I really wish this book had existed when I was a teen. Anyway, if you read it, let me know what you think! I’m hoping that since it’s actually out now there’ll be more reviews of it and more conversation around it.
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  5. Pili @ In Love With Handmade

    If only for the diversity and the unusual setting because western/pioneers is not very common in YA, I’m already adding this one to the wish list!
    Also the fact that you liked it well enough to give 3.5 stars and none of your grips are no-no’s for me.
    Great review Layla!
    Pili @ In Love With Handmade recently posted…Mystery Twitter Theater!!

    • Layla

      Yeah! When was the last time you read a western YA? (Or a western in general? I feel like I’ve read a few westerns as romances, but like … not a single YA western.) So … basically never. I would love to read more books by this author set in this time period, so I hope this is the beginning of an awesome, prolific career for her.

      I did really like it. The plotting and writing weren’t always things I was in love with but overall, I really liked the book. I hope you do too if you read it!

      Thanks Pili! <3!
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  6. Kris @Imaginary Reads

    I LOVE the diversity in this book. Not only for books set in this time period but even more contemporary reads tend to lack Chinese characters. Your review points out what I love and what I don’t love in books. Since your review is overall positive, I’ll probably check this one out. I really love historical fiction :)
    Kris @Imaginary Reads recently posted…Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

    • Layla

      OOH. If you like historical fiction and want to read about some non-White characters having adventures in history, you’ll like it. And yes, there’s definitely a dearth of Chinese characters in both historical and contemporary fiction, which is one of the reason that I’m so glad this book exists.

      If the review pointed out lots of things that you generally tend to like, I hope you’ll check this one out at some point (and let me know whether you like it or not – I think a lot of folks have tended to like it, but I’d be interested in your opinion, too)! :)
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  7. Nikki

    This definitely sounds like a compelling read and, yes, I did play Oregon Trail obsessively when I was younger so that helps with sparking the interest :)

    • Layla

      If you liked playing Oregon Trail, you will be able to recognize / remember places that Sammy and Andy encounter in their travels. Which is kind of fun! But, I mean, the book is actually even more enjoyable than Oregon Trail was, if you can believe it. I hope if you give it a chance, you end up liking it!
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  8. looloolooweez

    I read this recently too, and I liked it very much. I don’t think it is meant to be part of a series, but I wouldn’t mind getting another story about these characters. Maybe that’s why the ending didn’t really feel like a complete conclusion — to leave room for a sequel?
    looloolooweez recently posted…Ook

    • Layla

      I also didn’t think there was supposed to be a sequel, but I certainly wouldn’t mind one. I’d definitely be curious about what happens to these characters. (Especially when / if their paths diverge, and Peety and Annamae go off together … and Sammy starts a music conservatory? I want that to happen for her!!)

      I’m glad you enjoyed this one, too. It seems like a lot of folks did, which makes me happy – it makes me hopeful that it’ll pave the way for more books that are like this (that feature ethnically / racially diverse characters, in periods of American history where their stories get overlooked). That’d be wonderful.
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

  9. Wendy Darling

    I played this game obsessively in school! I am totally bookmarking this so I can go play it again at some point.

    I’m really happy to see that you enjoyed this–I am big on pioneer/old west stuff thanks to Little House and my unabashed love of westerns, but it’s one of those things that could be really, really good or go horribly wrong. Despite a couple of quibbles, 3.5 stars is very promising!

    I had a review copy fall through, so I’m glad that you read and reviewed this for us. Look forward to reading this myself at some point!
    Wendy Darling recently posted…An Ember in the Ashes: trailer feature + giveaway

    • Layla

      I started playing again after I finished writing the review, and um, let’s just say that I made some bad choices with regards to crossing several rivers. I ended up with only one person and then rage-quit halfway through. And found hunting to be way easier than I remembered it being! Several pesky digital squirrels met their end on this play-through.

      Oh man. I think / hope you will like this then. I did have a few quibbles – and wasn’t always super into the writing – but did think the story was really interesting (and that it was also one that very much needs to be told, too). So, I hope you’re able to get your hands on it, and let me know how you feel when you’re done. (Once you have ample time to read again. :)!)

      I couldn’t resist! History + female protagonists + diverse characters!
      Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

      • Wendy Darling

        Heh, it’s so funny how videogames can get us all crazy. My husband will sometimes get alarmed when he hears me swearing on the couch, and it’s usually only because the pets refuse to be rescued in Pet Rescue. I’m looking forward to trying Oregon Trail again! I had forgotten all about it until recently, though once I remembered I had vivid flashbacks of peering at a monstrously outdated computer and the awful graphics.

        Hm, good to be forewarned about the writing. And actually, a finished copy just showed up! So I get to unleash my opinion on you at some point after all.

        And yessss, I haven’t been able to read anything, Layla. Other than audiobooks and a reread of a beloved romance (BEWITCHING, get on that), I haven’t read anything since March 4th. And the rate I’m going, it may not be another month before I have the time and mental energy, booo.

        Are you feeling better? I hope so.

        • Layla

          Oh man, Pet Rescue! One of my good friends has been trying to get me to play that, but I’m still stuck on Candy Crush. (I know, I know! It’s addictive.) Why won’t the pets just let you rescue them??? Why won’t the candies just let me crush them??

          Play it again! The graphics on the version I linked to are hopefully what you remember (though I think there were earlier ones, I distinctly remember playing w/ like … an early Mac where everything was black and green).

          AWW YISS. I’ll be curious to see what you make of this one.

          I am better! I have been frolicking outside in the almost-sunshine. This has been the longest goddamned cold of my life, though; I’m still having trouble breathing on long walks and when I swim. BLARGH.
          Layla recently posted…Bone Gap: Review

    • Layla

      Yep. And both of the leads are non-White, which is pretty great. (This is also absolutely enough to make me want to read a book, but make it historical fiction and I’m even more down. Love it!) I’ll be interested to see what you make of it once you get your hands on it!
      Layla recently posted…An Ember in the Ashes: trailer feature + giveaway

  10. Alexa S.

    I neeeeed to read Under a Painted Sky! It seriously sounds fantastic, and I’m so thrilled that you enjoyed so much of it, in spite of your reservations. Can’t wait to experience it for myself!
    Alexa S. recently posted…There Be Dragons

    • Layla

      I did, really. And it’s not the worst thing in the world to feel like you just wanted more time with those characters! (Which I really, really did. I wanted more backstory about both Sammy and Andy, and more of a conclusion for, like, what happens to them after the book ends! Tell me where they go from here! Inquiring minds, man.)

      I hope you like it if you read it. It’s pretty good! Come back and tell me what you thought!
      Layla recently posted…Under a Painted Sky: Review

  11. Valerie

    I do very much want to read this, mostly because OREGON TRAIL! and also because the characters are so diverse. I’m glad you enjoyed it Layla! I might wait until the library gets it. I’m hoping the positives outweigh the negatives :)
    Valerie recently posted…Review: Finnikin of the Rock

    • Layla

      Oh, go read it then! I bet you’ll like it. I haven’t seen many (if any) critical reviews of it so far, so I think the odds are quite good that you’ll enjoy it.

      The positives did absolutely outweigh the negatives. It was a fun read! Selfishly, I hope this book does really, really well, and inspires a turn to telling different stories about American history.
      Layla recently posted…Under a Painted Sky: Review

    • Layla

      (And yes: OREGON TRAIL! It’s crazy how much of an impact that game had on me, and um, I suspect lots of other folks as well. Like, I *still* make fun of my sister because she would always, always choose to ford the river – no matter how deep it was – and drown her oxen. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Bahaha.)
      Layla recently posted…Under a Painted Sky: Review

  12. Stephanie Scott

    I agree with your assessment. The historical elements paired with their ethnicities and identities really made it for me. This was like Oregon Trail (the game), Lonesome Dove, and Little House on the Prairie all rolled into one. I would so have loved this book as a teen.

    The romantic storyline was more of a subplot, and at times I wasn’t sure quite where it was heading. I loved the pacing overall, though concur on the beginning and end, for me I could have had those stretched out a bit. That’s me, Adult Reader. A lot of YA seems to do this–immediate plunge in story, and fill in needed info with flashbacks if necessary. It seems to me the authors who get the luxury of more time setting up a story are established with multiple published books under their belt.

    • Layla

      Oh, same here. As a teenager, I loved anything that featured young women having adventures, particularly if it was historical fiction. (For example, Ann Rinaldi’s books were a much-loved part of my childhood and adolescence.) I’m glad teenagers now get to experience this one! It’s great.

      For me, the romantic storyline was an unnecessary distraction from all of the other harrowing, life-changing adventures that Andy and Sammy were having. I think especially because, in my mind, there didn’t seem to be much basis for their attraction to each other. (But I know that I’m also biased by sometimes preferring there to be less rather than more romance in my young adult novels, so, you know, I suspect other people were totally into this, and yay for them!)

      Hmm. I haven’t previously considered the points you make – whether the immediate plunge into the story is a feature of YA or not, as well as whether my preference for a slow build and a gradual resolution is a feature of my readerly inclinations as an adult – I’ll have to think more about this. Thanks for bringing that up. :)
      Layla recently posted…Under a Painted Sky: Review

  13. kindlemom1

    I almost though this was a Veronica Roth book, the cover looks just like one of her’s! :D
    This sounds like it was a good read until that abrupt ending, boo for that but yay for all the other positives it has. :D Great review!
    kindlemom1 recently posted…WoW Pick of the Week!

    • Layla

      Haha, I would never have seen Veronica Roth in that cover! But now that you’ve pointed it out …

      It is really good and really fun. If you haven’t read it yet, think about picking it up, maybe! In some ways, it’s not really a criticism of the book to say that I wish there’d been more to the ending; all that’s really to say that I wanted more time with these characters, which is never a bad thing. It just happened so suddenly that I didn’t expect it. (And like, I want to know what happens once they get wherever they decide to go! How will their various relationships play out? Will Sammy ever find Mr. Trask and see her mother’s jade bracelet again? IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. :))
      Layla recently posted…Under a Painted Sky: Review

  1. An Ember in the Ashes trailer and giveaway

    […] Strong female characters she loves: Alina from the Grisha trilogy, Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Cinder, Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Mare from Red Queen, Samantha and Andy from Under a Painted Sky […]