Published by Penguin, Putnam Children's on March 17, 2015
Pages: 384 pages
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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 » And I loved that Sammy eventually makes the decision to give up something she wants – finding Mr. Trask – for however long, to accompany Annamae while she searches for her brother. She leaves the safety of the group they’ve joined along the way for Annamae, as well as the possibility of ever finding Mr. Trask ever again. It’s actually a huge sacrifice, and I’m glad she makes it – but I wish the novel made more of it, because basically as soon as they catch up with Andy’s brother, he dies defending them. So they return to the group and all is as it was. And having Andy’s brother die felt like a cop-out to me in some ways – I really wanted more space and time in the novel with him, and would have been interested in reading about Sammy, Andy, and Isaac’s travels together. And it would have had the added benefit of further developing Andy’s character, which I wanted, too. « Hide 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?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.