“They say death only aims once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush.”
It’s 1848; Samantha and her father are the only Chinese Americans living in their tiny town of St. Joe, Missouri. When a tragedy leaves her orphaned and vulnerable she accidentally kills a man in self defense, so she has to scoot her butt out of town lickity split. The only pseudo-witness to the crime, Annamae, is a young African American woman who decides she’s had it with being a slave, so the two of them disguise themselves as boys and take off on the Oregon Trail, where they meet up with a band of big-hearted cowboys who take the runaway girl/boys under their wings. Cue adventure, dastardly deeds, etc.
Now, I know we tend to focus on fantasy and science fiction over here at Book Punks, but it’s half my blog so I get to do what I want half of the time, or something, and I want to review this western so you’ll just have to suck it up.
Perhaps you remember when I fell madly in love with Rae Carson’s sweeping Gold Rush tale, Walk on Earth a Stranger; I loved that book so hard that as soon as I came across ANOTHER Gold Rush book featuring two girls-disguised-as-boys hitting the Oregon Trail to get away from evil M-E-N, I was PUMPED. My PUMPED sentiments got even more PUMPED about the story being told from a diverse and under-represented perspective. Have you ever read a western told from a Chinese American perspective? I haven’t, and granted, I have read maybe three westerns in my entire life, but from what I gather there’s not a whole lot of that going around in this particular genre.
Overall, I really liked Under a Painted Sky; it’s a sweeping adventure full of strong characters and on-point social commentary that doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of the time. Getting an Oregon Trail story from the vantage point of two young women who decide to fight back against racially based victimization was a reading experience I never even knew I wanted, and I’m glad that I’ve had it now. HOWEVER. Even though I devoured this book in huge chunks and sucked in a gasp here and there, there were a few issues that kept me from falling in book love with abandon.
One was the pacing. It was really, really fast, and while I think this makes it an excellent choice for a reluctant reader, at times it felt like there were all these over the top plot points that were strung together without any true purpose other than thrills and chills. Which is fine, but it made the novel read as less serious than it possibly could have.
Speaking of over-the-top plot points, one drawback for me was the fact that Lee doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about horses, which is more than a nitpick considering how hugely important horses are in a western epic. I’m going to be a big old spoil sport here but I feel like I have to do it, for both your sake and mine, dear readers. At one point when our band of cowboys are in Wyoming-ish, I think, they are set upon by three stallions galloping across the plains to try to impregnate the cowboys’ mares. Now, I am a human who has grown up around horses for my entire life. I was put on a horse before I could walk, I competed all the way through high school, and managed a barn of polo ponies in college. So, I know a thing or two about horses, and even if these three stallions were running together in a bachelor herd and had their sights set on these conveniently numerically appropriate three mares, there probably would have been an inter-stallion conflict for dominance rather than a weird Seven Brides for Seven Brothers style breeding frenzy. What I’m trying to say is, that particular plot point strained credulity a bit too much for me, especially since it had lasting repercussions that resounded through a goodly chunk of the book thereafter. Also, there seemed to be an awful lot of gifting of animals for the sake of plot advancement, regardless of the fact that animals were HUGELY VALUABLE, as in, potentially the difference between life and death on the trail.
This brings me to another issue I had with the pacing and narrative structure in Under a Painted Sky. Perhaps I went into this reading experience with unfair expectations; I loved Walk on Earth a Stranger beyond most of 50+ books I read last year, because it captured the sweeping danger and drama of a pioneer story without veering too far into melodrama. Lee missteps in making most of the drama interpersonal while largely overlooking the inherent danger of traveling across a hostile landscape in the mid-nineteenth century. I do understand that for two young women of color disguised as men interpersonal danger would have been an enormous risk, but the nature of the conflict they had with other people, often at the expense of a realistic depiction of the harrowing nature of the trail, made the story veer a bit too far into teen melodrama territory. And, I get it, it’s a teen novel, so maybe it’s not meant to appeal to my readerly tastes, but I guess I went into this wanting something more along the lines of Walk on Earth a Stranger and I just didn’t get it.
Which means that a lot of my dissatisfaction with this book can be blamed on my own readerly bias. If I wanted to read something like Walk on Earth a Stranger, I probably should have read Walk on Earth a Stranger again instead of hoping Under a Painted Sky would be a unique rehash of a story I loved. Which isn’t to say I wish I hadn’t read Under a Painted Sky; on the contrary, overall I really liked the book. I just think I would have maybe liked it more if I hadn’t wanted it to be another book instead.