“Don’t want safety, only freedom.”
When Samantha Young’s doting father dies abruptly, leaving her an orphan at fifteen, the fall out causes her to flee St. Joe, Missouri in the company of a runaway slave, following the Oregon Trail towards the frontier. A Chinese-American girl and a wanted black slave girl stick out like sore thumbs on the Trail, so the girls decide to disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys bound for the California Gold Rush. Sammy hopes that she can somehow catch up with Mr. Trask, her father’s business partner who is headed for California, while Andy is hoping to find her brother Isaac at a meeting place known only as Harp Falls. Although determined and resourceful, they are ill-prepared for the rigours of the trail, and are forced to put their trust in a band of cowboys, including two Texan cousins and a Mexican ranchero bound for the West. Traveling with the boys makes it harder for Sammy and Andy to keep their secret, but the advantages seem to outweigh the risks until their feelings begin to make things more complicated.
Stacey Lee challenges the typical Western format with her multicultural protagonists, and sensitive portrayal of race on the American frontier. There are no stereotypical Indians, but rather more nuanced examinations of Samantha’s experience as a lone Chinese-American in the eastern United States, contrasted with Annamae’s life as a slave. In doing so, Lee brings into focus groups who were very much present on the American frontier, but who have since been erased from our depictions of that time period. This focus is by no means at the expense of the story, which is filled with equal parts action and emotion. Lee blends strong action and suspense with resonant personal relationships that feel deep and significant. Sammy and Andy are quickly bonded by their shared trials, while West, Cay, and Peety obviously have a long history together, and know one another well.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the close friendship that develops between Sammy and Andy as they rely on one another to protect their secret, having to consider everything from chest bindings, to menstrual cloths, to policing how they walk and talk. They become as close as sisters, but some tension remains due to the knowledge that pursuing their individual goals will eventually force them to separate. Andy is also a devout Christian, and struggles to reconcile her religiousness with Sammy’s frequent references to Chinese astrology and its beliefs about fate. Even as Lee develops the romantic interests in the later part of the story, she never loses the thread of Sammy and Andy’s bond, and the central role it plays in their adventure.
In many respects, the inevitable romance is one of the least enjoyable parts of Under a Painted Sky, though it serves well to complicate matters. West’s inexplicable attraction to Sammy, who he believes to be a boy, leads to a lot of internalized homophobic angst on his part, which doesn’t make him an especially appealing love interest. By contrast, Andy’s attraction to Peety is less fraught, and feels more natural as he teaches Andy to ride his stubborn horse, Princesa. However, Andy and Sammy’s friendship outshines both romances by miles. But as a great Western and friendship tale, a good romance is really more bonus than necessity.
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