Under A Painted Sky

By a show of virtual hands, how many of you grew up playing The Oregon Trail?  We would beg our teachers to let us play it--the first one, even though at that point it was a little outdated--and even willingly do math problems to have computer time.

It was always so frustrating when a screen popped up and one of your party had randomly died of dysentery, a bear attack, or drowning.  Mostly dysentery (ew).  Oregon Trail II improved this slightly by allowing you to purchase medicine (er, 19th Century "medicine") to heal your party members.  My little brother and I quickly found out that laudanum healed EVERYTHING.  Snake bites, cholera, pneumonia ... we would just dose 'em up with laudanum and be on our merry way.  I traded hundreds of pounds of meat for laudanum.

Then my mom told us what laudanum was.  Dang, if my brother and I had been actual pioneers, we would have been the highest travelers ever.

I'd heard really excellent things about Stacey Lee's Under A Painted Sky, which has been described as diversity and female friendship on the Oregon Trail.  I keep trying to convince myself that I loved this, but I did not.  I vaguely liked it.  Kind of.  Maybe?  Maybe not.  I am having issues with my feelings for this.

Making a book diverse does not compensate for a lack of characterization, plot, or wonky love interests.  I understand that the book is more introspective and tightly focused on the travails of a few, and the intersectionality of their struggles (try being a Chinese-American girl fugitive on the run disguised as a boy in 1849).  However, some parts of the novel moved very slowly, and other bits skipped around a lot, so at times it was hard for me to focus on the story.  The author spent long stretches detailing fishing or making stew, but the climax and denouement of the story felt rushed.

Samantha Young and her father are the only Chinese people in St. Joe's, Missouri.  Sam's father owns a dry-goods store and is saving up for them to hit the trail with his business partner, Mr. Trask.  Sammy would rather go back to New York, where at least there was some hope of her continuing with her violin playing--maybe she could even open a conservatory!  What hope was there of that in California, a land teeming with claim jumpers and gold prospectors?

But when fire consumes the store and her father, Sam has nowhere to go.  Local magnate Ty Yorkshire offers her a hotel room, but expects something in return.  After defending herself, Sam realizes to her horror that Yorkshire isn't just unconscious--he's dead.  With the help of Annamae, one of Yorkshire's slaves, she escapes.  The girls become outlaws--one a Chinese murderess, the other a runaway slave.  They join up with the pioneers heading west and disguise themselves as boys called Sammy and Andy.  Andy hopes to reunite with her brother, who ran away and promised to meet her at a place called Harp Falls.

Quickly, they fall in with a group of three young men: handsome Cay, silent West, and Peety, a Mexican vaquero.  They all have amazing horses--especially Peety's, named Princesa.  After a bet, Sam wins her and Andy's passage on horseback to the next river.  Their travels and fighting make up the bulk of the book, and frankly, it could get a little boring.  I tired of West running off and bedding a girl every time they stopped with the wagon train.  Literally within five minutes the boy would have gotten into a prarie girl's bloomers.  Was everyone that desperate?  The girls worry a lot about hiding their true sex from the guys, but it turns out that in the end, the guys knew all along.  Which is ... convenient, I suppose.

Because, hang on a second.  Let's go with the idea that the boys knew that the girls were not boys, but girls.  But the girls thought the boys believed the act.  When West started showing affection for Sam, and Peety for Andy, wouldn't the girls wonder if the guys ... preferred guys?  Instead, Sam longed to attract West's affections while disguised as a boy, which seems like a setup for a lot of confusion and heartbreak.

On their journey, the group encounter a lot of dangerous situations, like being stuck in a flaming tree after a lightning storm, a bunch of super-horny mustangs, angry Scotsmen, and a fiddle-banjo duel.  I guess the last one isn't dangerous, per se, but it did threaten to reveal Sammy's true identity.  There is also a gang of murderers roaming around.  AND dysentery.  I am very grateful right now for all of the modern conveniences I have, like Pedialyte and ... restricted access to killer horses.

In spite of all this action, I had difficulty finding a plot.  Sammy has to catch up with her father's partner and retrieve her mother's jade bracelet.  Andy is trying to find her brother.  But most of the time, Sammy is fantasizing about West, who is one of the flattest characters I've ever read.  He is just ... there.  He drawls and sulks a lot.  He has some scars.  Why does she like him?  Why does he like her?  Andy and Peety are slightly more interesting, but I found myself cringing every time Peety spoke.  Sometimes his English was nearly flawless, and other times he became the stereotypical Mexican character from any John Wayne movie ever.

There is also a scene with naked cowboys singing "Yankee Doodle," if that's your thing.  A coworker recently announced that she likes "cowboy tushies" and now I feel scarred.

Lastly, I was really disappointed that for all of its diversity, Across A Painted Sky does not address Native Americans.  At the beginning of the book, Andy tells Sammy that they'd need "Indian paint"  to make themselves look completely different, but Native tribes are glaringly absent from the girls' journey.  They're invisible.  This is sadly par for the course in YA literature, but I had hoped for something more in this book.

And yet ... the friendship between Annamae and Samantha was so beautiful and nuanced, with both girls learning from the other's experiences and learning to trust other people after having been abused and discriminated against for so long.  I'm so torn on this that I can't even write a proper conclusion.

How many of you have read this?  What did you think?



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