Debut author Stacey Lee‘s Under a Painted Sky lyrically intertwines aspects of America’s Western expansion that are rarely, if ever, explored. Into the very real world of the California Gold Rush, the pioneers’ homesteading journeys along the Oregon Trail, and the lawlessness of the “Wild West“, Lee creates a powerfully moving story of friendship, race and gender politics, and above all, courage and faith. It’s a treat to spend time with a writer who takes pains to research and then accurately represent, with beautiful, vivid prose, a world gone by and in so doing, make it vibrant, interesting, and resonant.
15 year old Chinese American Samantha Lee is trapped in Missouri. It’s 1849 and her father runs the dry goods store, outfitting the pioneers, cowboys, and gold seekers who are all heading out into the American frontier. Samantha spends her time giving music lessons to local children, wishing she could return to New York City to become a professional musician. When her father is killed as their store burns to the ground, not only are Samantha’s dreams destroyed, but she finds herself fearing for her own life. In a moment of desperation, Samantha accepts help from Annamae, a runaway slave, and the two young women flee across the Missouri River, plunging headlong into the unknown.
Hiding from trackers, lawmen, and other disreputable characters won’t be easy for two young women, so the girls disguise themselves as boys and struggle to flee their past and avoid any unwanted attention. Soon they meet a small group of cowboys who take the “boys” under their wing and prove unlikely, if sometimes tenuous, allies. Danger, stampedes, illness, outlaws, and adventure lay ahead, but the question remains if the secrets Samantha and Annamae are running from will overtake them in the end.
Reflecting Samantha’s virtuosity with the violin, Lee masterfully composes a piece of art that deftly harmonizes many thought-provoking elements: Samantha’s Chinese heritage, rich with memories, paternal examples, and cultural beliefs; her and Annamae’s double outsider status; a gradual coming of age tale that unfolds on the hardscrabble frontier; and a hopeful vision for how rewarding life can be if, and when, we can accept that “life … [is like] the clouds. They never hold still. Sometimes you think you’re seeing one thing, and a second later, the whole picture changes. But we don’t have to let the clouds change us for the worse. We can just let them roll over us.” (364)
- Posted by Cori