By: Hannah Rapp, Teen Librarian
Everyone has certain genres or stories they tend to gravitate towards or away from. It’s natural! But once again, I’ve been reminded how important it is to not let those tendencies get in the way of finding a great read. For instance, I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns or Oregon Trail type stories, but I am a huge sucker for friendship stories. And if I hadn’t given my latest What I Just Read book a try, despite the cowboy thing, I never would have discovered the amazing friendship at the core of it.
What I Just Read: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
What’s It About (Jacket Description): 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.
Did I Like It: More like LOVED it!
Thoughts: Like I said, I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, and aside from the joy of killing 1800 pounds of buffalo (and only being able to carry 200 pounds back to the wagon,) not all that interested in the Oregon Trail. And Under a Painted Sky is a Western set on the Oregon Trail – complete with covered wagons and cowboys. But as it turns out, I can love a Western, and be fascinated by life on the Oregon Trail! Under a Painted Sky won’t disappoint fans of Westerns. There’s outlaw gangs, horses, stampedes, fiddles, quests, and more. And for Oregon Trail fans, there are covered wagons, dangerous river crossings, and cholera (yes, cholera – and it’s ugly.) I am by no means trying to say this isn’t the type of book I thought it would be, because it was.
But what was great for me to learn is that a really well-written Western, like a really well-written book in any genre, can have all kinds of other appeals as well. For me, I loved the adventure aspect of two young women trying to track down something important (in Annamae’s case, her brother, and in Samantha’s case, her father’s best friend and clues about her future) and overcoming obstacles to do it. There is danger, intrigue, and some humor. There are fights as well as fun, despite the dangers of the journey. But as is usually the case for me, it was the characters and their relationships that really brought Under a Painted Sky into the realm of the truly great.
Annamae and Samantha are both fantastic characters, and they complement each other well. Annamae is nearly fearless, always fierce, and extremely down-to-earth and pragmatic. She keeps Samantha, an artistic dreamer, centered. But both characters are strong – strong to their core. They have each endured terrible things, horrors even in Annamae’s case, but they have both decided to push through anyways, to struggle for what they want, and to keep embracing life and joy. And their friendship with each other is lovely to read about. They learn to trust each other fast, because they have to, and their friendship is forged by fire. But they also make each other laugh, and look out for each other, and talk to each other about big and little things, and even have in-jokes. It’s so real and wonderful to read about, even in these extraordinary circumstances. To be honest, for me at least, Samantha and Annamae completely overshadowed the supporting characters, even though they were all wonderfully interesting, well-developed, and likable.
So if you like adventures stories, or Westerns, or cowboys, or are obsessed with the Oregon Trail, this is a book for you. And if you like well-developed characters, dynamic and relatable relationships, and great friendships, this is also the book for you! I can’t recommend Under a Painted Sky enough, and I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee will do next.