Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee | G.P. Putnam's Sons, and imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group | March 2015 | Hardcover $16.99
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I was pleasantly surprised by Under a Painted Sky. Here's the thing: I'm not into "Westerns" (in the traditional genre sense, involving cowboys and pioneers and the like). Yeah, I know, I bring a deep shame upon my über-Texas family. Such is my burden.
Anyway, I wasn't sure about the whole Oregon Trail/California Gold Rush angle but I requested a review copy anyway for 2 reasons:
- The publisher bills this as "a powerful tale of friendship and sacrifice for fans of Code Name Verity" and even though I haven't read that one yet I did read its companion novel Rose Under Fire and liked it very much.
- I've been reading a lot lately about the need for more diversity in publishing, especially in children's/teen books, and I want to put more effort into reading/promoting books with diverse characters. The main POV character in Under a Painted Sky is of Chinese descent in an era when being anything other than "white" in America was terribly difficult and dangerous.
Under a Painted Sky comes out in about 2 weeks on March 17, 2015. This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
Here's part of the summary from the publisher:
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. [...] This 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.
Pay close attention to the term "heart-wrenching" in that summary. It is not an exaggeration. I was fooled by the colorful, almost cheerful cover. The cover is a LIE. This book will rip your heart out.
Lee doesn't shy away from the realities of racism, disease, natural disasters, and general violence in the Wild West. No one is safe and nothing is sacred. The main characters (the two runaway girls and their cowboy friends) experience serious danger and hard losses.
That said, there is a healthy dose of humor and sweetness to go along with the horrors. It's not all bad. One of the best things about this book is the way the characters' relationships develop. I think it is quite obvious to the reader that the cowboys have guessed at Sammy and Andy's big gender-bender secret well before the end of the book, but Sammy and Andy don't know that and so they go on pretending... and some of the predicaments they deal with because of this disguise are definitely giggle-worthy.
Under a Painted Sky gets extra points from me for just being so different from everything else that's currently big in the teen book publishing arena right now. Perhaps the comparison to Code Name Verity is a good one. Here's an historical fiction book that's obviously well-researched and fairly historically accurate, but it is so full of adventure and OMGFEELS that it won't feel like just some boring history/ethics lesson.
I highly recommend this book, with the fair warning that Lee does use historically accurate racial slurs on occasion (though within a sensitively handled context), plus some sexual situations/language -- nothing too shocking in comparison to most modern YA books. Even though I got to borrow an e-book pre-pub version, I think I'm going to buy a paper copy for myself to keep. Plus, I might get to rub shoulders with the author at the TLA conference in April!
Here's the author blurb from the review copy:
Publication information: Lee, Stacey. Under a Painted Sky. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2015. EPUB.
Source: This review is based on an e-ARC that I received from the publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.