The events of one day change Sammy from a moody teenage girl to a fugitive striking out into the west, in an engaging work of historical fiction.
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015, 370 pages
When her father dies violently, Samantha Young becomes prey to an attempted rape that leads to accidental murder. It also leads to big trouble, for as she observes, “The law in Missouri in this year of our Lord 1849 does not sympathize with a Chinaman’s daughter.” Unexpected help arrives in the form of Annamae, a slave girl with her own problems. The girls decide to disguise themselves as boys and head west. Soon they join a group of cowboys, also bound west. Will their tenuous alliance last? And will the girls be able to keep their secrets and stay ahead of the law?
Lee includes several Christian characters who appear genuine and not misguided. While Sammy is inclined to believe in fate, Annamae sees providence and God’s provision in life:
“God is benevolent . . . and it ain’t Christian to believe in fate, because He’s in charge of the stars, too.” She raises her eyes to the canopy and mutters, ‘Be merciful on the poor wretch’s soul. She’s going through a rough spell.”
Despite her friend’s faith, Sammy displays a dose of skepticism and melds her father’s Christianity with the Chinese philosophy of her forbears.
For some readers, the attempted rape scene, portrayed on the book’s first pages and referenced later in the story, is enough reason to avoid Under a Painted Sky. However, this scene, and a later occasion where Sammy happens upon two lovers, is not gratuitous. Other problematic elements include sensuality, violence, and occasional language. Teenage readers will encounter these elements in nonfiction historical books, too. History, whether Missouri in 1849 or Germany in 1941, is not without “cautions.” Another problem is that the author’s 21st-century sensibilities occasionally bleed through the authentic setting. For example, cowboy Wes struggles with the legacy of a harsh father, and the girls’ reaction concerning his past reflects a modern view of parenting and discipline.
Even though library YA shelves brim with dystopia, alternative reality, fantasy, and contemporary fiction, YA historical fiction is said to be making a comeback. Under a Painted Sky is a step toward filling a need for mature teens: a well-written, engaging adventure that brings to life 19th century America and captures the excitement, danger, and adventure of westward expansion.
Cautions: Sexuality (See above), Vulgarity (Nudity referenced), Language (mild cursing, cowboy banter about women), Violence (Stampedes and outlaw fighting)
Overall rating: 3.5 (out of 5)
Categories: Young Adult, Girls, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Modern History, Westward Expansion
Cover Image from Amazon