Published by Penguin on March 17, 2015
Genres: Historical, Love & Romance, Young Adult
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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.
The Wild West made real.
I’ll be honest here, I’m not a huge fan of books set in the Gold Rush era. Don’t ask me why, but I never really adored them. There was just something about the rough and tumble west that never appealed to me–honestly, for historical novels I was always more a fan of England with it’s politics and elegance than America. And then I read Under a Painted Sky.
It’s rare to find a story where pretty much all the characters aren’t white and I think this is one of the firsts I’ve read where the voices seemed so real. The characters’ backgrounds added another layer to their character and filled the book with a fascinating culture that just made the book more. It’s absolutely amazing how Lee was able to bring to life the time of cowboys and gold miners with such diverse and rich characters while also delivering a book with an intriguing plot and an absolutely swoony romance.
Ah, but the most prominent relationship wasn’t the romance–it was the friendship between two girls who’d committed a crime by trying to survive in a town where people of color are, basically, nothing. Annamae and Samantha had an amazing friendship that developed and the grew as the story progressed and I found myself wishing more and more that I had a best friend like that. They were, at a point, more sisters than friends and I loved that their friendship seemed to come before any sort of romance. (And I loved Annamae. Seriously loved. Can I have her?)
But the romance was so sweet and adorable. I will say it’s a bit Mulan-esque only because of the whole dressing-up-like-a-guy thing, but honestly I loved the romance. While it’s not the main focus, you can’t help but root for the couple (and Annamae’s own romance!) Cowboys are officially right up there with assassins and bad boys on my Favorite Love Interests list. (It’s totally a thing.)
As for the plot, the pacing in Under a Painted Sky is so well done. I was never bored of the story and the adventures “Sam” and “Andy” had with the cowboys were both hilarious, near heartbreaking, and absolutely thrilling. There were so many things I loved about the plot that I can’t really put into words, but let’s just saw when I wasn’t giggling hilariously, or smiling goofily, I was sitting precariously on the edge of my chair. There are more than a few complications that Sammy runs into and I’m just stunned by Stacey Lee’s storytelling.
Under a Painted Sky is a stunning and charming debut novel that tells a story of the Wild West with whirlwind adventures, cowboys, and a very real character. With diverse characters and a rich culture to boot, this book is pretty much perfect!