Samantha, Sam, fought with her father the day he died. Her father plans to close their dry goods shop in Missouri and move to California with an old family friend. Samantha wishes to move to New York to become a professional musician– not an easy task for a young girl in 1849, much less one who is Chinese.
When a blaze of fire envelops her family home, the one person who seems to offer “help” intends to force her into prostitution. Within the first few pages, Samantha must come to terms with her father’s likely murder and fend off a man attempting to assault her. The result of her efforts is his death, which is discovered by Annamae, a 16-year-old slave girl. Annamae quickly assesses the situation and offers to go on the run with Sam. The two choose to disguise themselves as boys and head west where they hope to find freedom, family and security.
Cowboys and pioneers; cholera and stampedes; a mysterious gang of criminals on the run and authorities upholding unjust laws all coalesce into a climax that mostly lives up to the tension. In an interview, Lee said tension is her “achilles heel“. She mentioned revising those sections twenty to thirty times and the work is evident. The book is very well structured with few scenes that do not, in some way, lead to or affect the climax.
The author did a great deal of research for this book, as one must do when writing historical fiction. She “wanted to write a book about what it was like for the first Chinese Americans in the United States. Many of them came during the California Gold Rush, which coincided with the western expansion of the United States via the Oregon Trail.” But she didn’t stop there, she portrayed attitudes toward race and gender at the time as well.
Unsurprisingly, these were some of the main themes of the book, but the issues that affect us are not our entire identity. Lee knew that, and that is why she included themes like grief and friendship. The relationship Sam had with her father and her struggle to come to terms with the circumstances of his death affects her throughout the book.
Annamae and Sam’s friendship demonstrates positive and essential methods to survival in harsher worlds. I actively seek out positive female friendships, and this book most definitely had it. While circumstances at the beginning force the two together, they build a genuine friendship where their differences– whether it be religious or reaction based– are respected and explored. They support each other and this is why they survive.
The dialogue between the mischievous group of cowboys, Sam and Annamae was full of droll wit and just enough period language to help set the scene. Both main characters have distinct voices and the interactions between them were some of the most enjoyable sections of the book, for me.
Sam is torn between her dreams, her new friendship, and duty as a daughter. She is raised to be proud of her culture in a world which views it as uncivilized. At the same time, she questions parts of the cultural wisdom she was raised with, parsing out the traditions which held her back from the ideas which connect her with her family, her people and herself.
Annamae bears an even-keeled practicality which results from facing open and widespread oppression. Yet she retains a softness demonstrated when she speaks of her lost brothers– one of whom sent her a way to escape from slavery on the same day she met Samantha. Annamae’s choice to help Samantha at the cost of her own escape evinces her true character.
Even so, at times, she did feel more sidekick than friend. If I am being honest with myself, I would have preferred more development of Annamae over the romance elements. The book stumbles here.
Despite some of the more serious themes and plot points, Under the Painted Sky didn’t feel heavy. On the contrary, it uplifted. Stacey Lee spread scenes which break tension through the book and allows her characters some pockets of happiness.
A unique take on the Wild West Stacey Lee’s book has my full recommendation.