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.
I have just been on the most incredible adventure. And now I am not too sure of what to do with myself.
Under a Painted Sky combines elements I am not usually familiar with (nor fond of) – Westerns and historical fiction – with themes I love to read about – sisterhood, friendship, loss, and the unexpected things we find. The result? An unforgettable, and poignant story about the bravery and determination of two young girls as they journey across the Oregon Trail. Lee captures the dusty road of the Oregon Trail with unparalleled finesse and detail with a moving story about pursuing the precious few things left in the face of overwhelming loss.
Many others have highlighted this as the best thing about the book, and here I am to reinforce it: Sammy and Andy’s friendship is absolutely stunning. Though it is birthed from tragedy and terrible circumstances, Sammy and Andy’s friendship shines bright because it is one of strength and trust. With the unforgiving dangers along the Oregon Trail, both girls and their bond are tested. The beautiful thing about Under a Painted Sky is not that they overcome these challenges in itself, but that they overcome these challenges and grow closer together with each hardship. The development of both characters – as individuals and together – was flawless, and it was so rewarding to see how two girls, strangers at first, develop to become as close as sisters.
Relevant to the book’s time period, Under a Painted Sky also explores themes such as racism, sexism, and slavery. The themes were difficult, but Lee unpacked each with a sensitive yet critical eye, challenges negative and harmful expressions, and also addressed how oppression is experienced in different ways. Anti-blackness and how this affects Andy – and how this contrasts with Sammy’s experiences – is also addressed through frank and important dialogue between the two girls. Not only were these interactions important, but they were a testament to the girls’ trust and respect for one another, and how the strength of their friendship.
There’s a Chinese principle called yuanfen, which means your fate with someone else … Two people with strong yuanfen have a greater chance of meeting in their lifetimes, and can become as close as family.
The characters themselves were delightful. I reveled in Sammy’s narrative; I loved how her beliefs and superstitions from her Chinese roots interwove with the narrative, especially her observations and commentary on the other characters. Andy was a star in this story, possessing a peerless, quiet strength and a stubbornness that was formidable and endearing. The three cowboys, whom I feared would be forgettable ‘filler’ characters, were wonderful companions and, later, key members of Sammy and Andy’s unexpected family. All characters were fleshed out with their own histories, their demons, and the burdens they carried along the Oregon Trail. The romance in this story was light, served with some angst, but it entwined with the overall story seamlessly.
However, underlying Under a Painted Sky is the idea of loss. All the characters in this story have lost something, and in a way, it is what ties them all together. Through Sammy’s perspective, her losses – before and throughout her journey, again and again – are deeply emotional and heart-shattering. Under a Painted Sky unveils the hope we carry in objects, how memories and feelings are etched onto them, and why losing them can hurt so deeply. And yet, the story offers a juxtaposition: though loss is inevitable in life, finding new things is inevitable too. Perhaps the new things cannot replace the old things, but they can be light shining through the cracks.
Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.
The ending is a common point of critique; it was abrupt and the story wraps itself in a way that feels convenient, but I didn’t mind it very much. Though the ending did not offer much resolution, the ending is hopeful. After all, focal to the narrative is the characters’ growth, and the characters do grow – by the end of the story, I knew that they would be okay whatever comes their way.
Lee challenges that idea that historical fiction cannot be told by the invisible voices in history, proving with Under a Painted Sky that fantastic historical fiction do not have to center on white narratives. Under a Painted Sky may take you across the dangerous country, but it is a powerful emotional journey first and foremost. It is a wonderful story about bravery, perseverance, friendship and loss, told in the backdrop of a time of danger, great change, and also an enduring hope.
Book Name: Under a Painted Sky
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
With this book down, the only other book by Stacey Lee that I need to read is Outrun the Moon! I’ve heard amazing things about it, so I am very very excited! I have such a fondness for this book because Sammy plays the violin – and I did too! For about 10 years. Then I stopped. (WHY DID I STOP? 😭)
- Have you read Under a Painted Sky? Did you like it?
- Have you read Stacey Lee’s other books? What did you think?
- What is your favourite historical fiction or Western book?