YA Review: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

Sometimes I have a book on to-be-read list that I keep saying, “I’ll read that soon.” UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee had been that book for months and months. Finally a friend of mine listed it among her favorite reads for 2015 and I made it a priority. Of course then I kicked myself for not reading it sooner :). I could not put this one down, folks. Here’s the gorgeous cover and description.

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 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.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – Girls disguised as boys! I mean, you know I wrote one of those, right? I never get tired of this premise, and there are so many ways to do it well. For Samantha and Annamae, the disguises are necessary for their own safety. Do they work? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out!

2. The writing – I love the way Ms. Lee weaves music into Sammy’s thoughts. It’s so gorgeous. Sammy often speaks to her father, who–small spoiler!–dies in the opening pages. Here’s an example.

“Father, you told me music is a world that measures virtue by grace notes, and truth by the vibration of pitch against your soul. Will I ever find my way back there? Or is that world gone forever, now that you are no longer part of it?”

3. The friendship – It’s clear in the beginning Sammy hasn’t had many opportunities for friendship. Although her Chinese heritage doesn’t brand her a complete outcast from society like Annamae as a slave, she is a curiosity and an outsider. The bond these two girls forge is beautiful.

4. The romance – Although the romance isn’t as much of a focus as the friendship, it’s still a major part of the story. And of course, when the girl is disguised as a boy, that complicates things. I like the way Ms. Lee handles it, with the question being as much, “Does he suspect the truth?” as “Is he upset he might have feelings for a boy?”

5. The hope – Despite a lot of ugly things that happened to Sammy and Annamae during the story, I felt hopeful at the end. In large part this hope originated with the three cowboys they traveled with, but also with other people they met along the way who demonstrated there was a better future in store for the country. Everything wasn’t resolved perfectly–there were a few questions I would have liked answered–but I was hopeful.

I highly recommend this book. I think perhaps I didn’t pick it up for a while because of the Western setting, but that was a mistake. It’s a fast-paced read with a well-drawn friendship and tension-filled romance. So worth moving to the top of your reading pile!

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