Life on the Oregon Trail back in 1849 was not easy, especially if you’re a criminal on the run. It’s also even more difficult if you’re a girl and your partner-in-crime best friend happens to be a runaway black slave. This is the tale of Samantha, a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming a musician and opening her own conservatory to teach others with a passion for music. However, the American dream for minorities was a hard feat back then. Samantha finds her dreams even further out of reach, when a tragic accident forces her on the run for her life and freedom.
Under a Painted Sky is a beautifully written stand alone novel that features diversity at its finest. Stacey Lee’s debut book follows Samantha and her friend Annamae running from their little town in Missouri seeking freedom in the West. With easily recognizable faces, the two decide to masquerade as boys Sammy and Andy. The girls aren’t alone in their journey, as three young dashing cowboys gallop into their lives.
In addition to its diverse cast of characters, Under a Painted Sky includes various cultural customs and beliefs, which are cleverly and naturally interwoven into the story. Lee does a wonderful job of introducing and explaining them in a way that does not take the reader away from the world or story. The cultural depictions add rich depth to the cast; for example, when readers see the world through Samantha’s eyes when she likens her companions to various animals from the Chinese zodiac. The book also paints the cultural landscape of America from that time, describing Christianity and deep racial tension. Despite the seriousness of some topics touched upon in the novel, the book never strays from its focal tale of friendship and how trust and perseverance can overcome the darkest of matters.
Lee also showcases her skill in writing a novel about gender-bending, chock-full of hilarious dialogue and situations reminiscent from Asian romantic comedies Hanazakari no Kimitachi e and Coffee Prince. Both girls are enamored of two cowboys, mainly Sammy being drawn to the gorgeous green-eyed West. Readers will be kept on their toes in anticipation, constantly wondering whether the cowboys know that that their two skinny companions are girls. Be prepared to squeal over scenes such as ones where the girls make fishing bets with the boys, in which the losers have to sing while being “unshucked,” or when poor naive Samantha has an interesting conversation with one of the boys, leaving her wondering what “filly” means.
While romantic comedy remains part of the story, it is never the main vehicle of movement in the novel. At its heart, the friendship between Samantha and Annamae is the true gem and theme. Decisions are made with the benefit of both girls in mind with each willing to sacrifice something in order to allow the other to obtain freedom and happiness. It is extremely rare to find friendship above all as a main plot device in a Young Adult novels. Although Samantha knows that staying with the cowboys would guarantee her protection from potential dangers on the trail, she is willing to give it up to follow Annamae and help her find her only remaining family member. Annamae, on the other hand, understands the difficulty of traveling with a runaway slave and would rather Samantha stay safe with the cowboys, willing to leave in order to protect her. In the end, the two discover that friendship is something more powerful and precious than anything else in their world.
Under a Painted Sky is a unique light-hearted read which covers various themes that are wonderfully and beautifully highlighted throughout the book. The heavier topics that are showcased, while are important, never overshadow the story’s theme that true bonds between friends whether romantic or platonic always prevails. The moral of this tale is while life can be hard, it doesn’t mean you need to live through it alone and that good things will come even in the darkest of times.