Publisher: Penguin Canada
Release Date: March 17, 2015
Genres: Historical, Romance, YA
Source: Received in exchange for review
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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. This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.
It’s no big secret that I’m totally enamored with the historical fiction sub-genre within YA. I have read nearly all of the historical fiction out there within the YA demographic and have seen equal parts good and bad. With this in mind, consider the weighting of what I say next: Under a Painted Sky brings a diversity to the genre I haven’t seen before. As much as I adore the genre, I’ve read my share of rich white debutantes/duchesses/whatever but there really is a noticeable lack of diversity (racially most notably, but also class). I can see that history is shameful in its treatment of differences, and that some wouldn’t want to read a story based in harsh reality and would rather wear rose colored glasses. I’m not one of them. Under a Painted Sky features a multitude of characters of different racial backgrounds, and I really do think representation of them is important. Life isn’t easy for these characters- I mean the time period is 1849 after all. However, with the inclusion of these characters you get a sense of their strength to deal with all of this awful and unfair treatments. I believe that we should recognize that despite all of the terrible discrimination, that those of different races managed to survive and had the strength to keep living in a world so against them.
Okay, I’m done my little side rant there. Now I will return this review to my inevitable gushing and adoration of this novel. Under a Painted Sky is easily one of my favorite novels released this year. I honestly have zero complaints about this novel or what could be done better. I am not ashamed that the rest of this review will likely feature incoherent gushing.
The history interwoven throughout Under a Painted Sky is undeniably atmospheric and clearly well researched. I personally have never read a historical fiction novel set in the time period of the California gold rush nor one that depicts the harsh life on the Oregon trail. After finishing Under a Painted Sky however, I feel a new found understanding and knowledge regarding both. The description of the trail and time period felt extremely vivid/accurate and transported me to the era. The setting, culture (you not only get western culture at the time period, but culture that shines through the diverse characters), dangers of the trail and day to day life combined to make the perfect back drop to the story.
Historical fiction has a bad rep for being slow or boring, and I can assure you that in Under a Painted Sky there is never a dull moment. The story begins in a way I certainly wasn’t excepting and had me flipping pages till the very end. There’s suspense and danger around every corner. However, not far behind you will find some truly humorous scenes (hello, you got girls pretending to be boys and cowboys) and inspiring moments. Most of the story takes place on the Oregon trail and I found that journey to be captivating with the dangers it held along with the people the main characters met.
I’ve spoken about the characters a few times in this review. They were all beautifully crafted by Lee, all multi-faceted and alive. They felt realistic in regards to culture, voices, trials & tribulations, struggles, hopes & dreams…honestly everything about these characters felt distinct and complex. Our main character, Samantha, offered a unique narration through her Chinese ancestry. She was also a character you couldn’t help but admire, and along with a runaway slave named Annamae they made the perfect team. Samantha and Annamae decide to go on this harsh journey after a very tragic accident and from that moment forward form a very tightknit bond. It was utterly beautiful to see this female friendship grow and flourish. I would definitely say that this is Samantha and Annamae’s story. It’s about their survival- how they overcome the tragic situations that have occurred to the both of them and constant racial, gender and class issues. I would say they overcome the aforementioned through the strength of their friendship and that they both eventually gain a sense of strength of their own. The female friendship highlighted in Under a Painted Sky is not something we see too often in YA, but I can’t imagine this story without it. At it’s core Under a Painted Sky truly does tell a tale involving the “power of friendship.”
Though there is the amazing relationship between Annamae and Samantha, there is also a romance with our main character and one of the cowboys they encounter on their journey. I’m incredibly happy to report that this romance never comes anywhere close to overshadowing the amazing friendship of Annamae and Samantha. The romance that is present however is done in my favorite sort of way- slow burn baby. I found the romance to be what gave the story an humorous edge at times, there was some pretty great banter. It was well developed and I definitely supported it. The love interest had his own backstory to rival Annamae’s and was no way flat. PLUS HE’S A COWBOY GUYS.
Overall, I utterly loved this novel. Under a Painted Sky has wonderfully fleshed out characters, amazing female friendship, stellar plotline, beautifully interwoven history and diversity. I can’t recommend it enough.
~Thank you Penguin Canada for the review copy~
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