There are certain books – approximately twelve a year – that I read because I have to. They’re book club books. I don’t get to choose. Well, untrue, I chose not to read a couple last year because – why punish myself with bad books. Reading is supposed to be fun. When I saw Under a Painted Sky was the first book for 2016, I had no reaction. I’d never heard of it. I was unaware of the hype. I didn’t read the blurb. I just grabbed the audiobook and got started. This is not my type of book. Nope. I dislike historical fiction. I dislike Westerns. I would never have picked this book up on my own. I would have picked it up based on the cover, read the blurb, put it back down, and never thought about it again. Sometimes, my preferences steer me wrong. This book is damn entertaining.
Not only do we get the story of two girls bonding in friendship over shared trauma, but also one of forced exploration of self. Samantha and Annamae have both been ripped from their families and are now facing a potential life of prostitution. Annamae is already living in the whorehouse when Samantha is brought in, but she sees opportunity in Samantha’s desperation and leads them on their escape.
Instead of Samantha and Annamae – two girls fleeing the law, they become Sammy and Andy – two boys finding their way west to the gold rush. Doesn’t sound that difficult. Until you include the fact that Andy is black and Sammy is Chinese. In 1849, two men of colour travelling together are almost as memorable as two girls. So, even though they are passing as men, they stay in people’s memories. This leaves Sammy and Andy with two challenges – pass as boys/be unmemorable. Early on in the book, the girls join up with three men who are also travelling to California. Slowly, they earn their trust and end up travelling with them.
When the girls first hooked up with the boys, I was worried that this was going to turn into a silly romance novel. You know – A case of instalove. There’s this thing that has happened in YA over the last couple years where if two characters meet and are attracted to each other (or one to the other), we write the books off as instalove syndrome. Unfortunately, this perception exists because far too many books fall into this category. Where instead of simple instant attraction, our female lead falls into instant, all encompassing, infatuation. That type of story tends to be pretty obnoxious and denigrating to women. Realistically, instant attraction happens all the time. You meet someone and get a case of ‘Holy crap, they’re cute and funny. Hmmm”. And then maybe that attraction develops. Maybe it doesn’t. The attraction between Sammy and West is adorable. She feels like maybe he’s interested in her, but he also thinks she’s a boy, so it’s very confusing for Sammy. And probably doubly confusing for West.
This is not a case of instalove. In fact, with its false identities, role swapping, and paired off happy ending, the novel reads a little like a (less crude) Shakespearian bed-hopping comedy. Honestly, this structure is a lot of what made me like it. It’s something familiar that was handled carefully and thoughtfully. It works because of Lee’s strong writing. She’s got a clever hand with dialogue and works in several side stories to lead the characters into peril without making the story feel clunky.
Lee deftly handles a book helmed by minority characters. Setting it in a time when race was so openly an issue that she’s able to work in the message behind #weneediversebooks without becoming heavy-handed or preachy – which would not have worked with the vibe of this book. Sammy and Andy are both aware that they have more to worry about than passing for boys. Andy is constantly being inspected to see if she’s one of a gang of wanted black men. Sammy knows that there are even fewer travelling Chinese than blacks. She is an oddity on the trail. When West becomes standoffish she worries it’s not because she’s a boy but because she’s Chinese. Something she cannot change – even if he does figure out she’s a girl. And as worried as she is about not getting caught, West’s interest in her is important. She thinks about it frequently. She wants to kiss him. She wants him to like her. But not enough to betray her friend. Getting Annamae to her brother becomes her top priority. Freedom is the end goal. They are travelling to a side of the country where their ethnicity doesn’t pose as large a problem. Where slaves are free and Sammy dreams of opening a music conservatory. Their freedom lies in California.
And here comes my one major issue with the book. It’s a seemingly small one, but I don’t know… I hate West’s name. My kingdom for a different name. It becomes so much more than a name. Samantha’s salvation literally lies in West. To me this places too much importance on his role in saving her. It diminishes her importance in her own life. She is travelling west. She meets a man named West. She challenges stereotypical gender roles on her journey west. She experiences her first sexual attraction with West. She owes her actual life to the west and West. Everything comes down to a direction and a boy with the same name. This overlap makes him start to overshadow her. And that’s a travesty.
Self-exploration is where this book really shines. Having to exam your life because you have no other choice. Annamae and Samantha are forced to examine the way they have previously thought of themselves. They are forced to be more than just girls. They prove to be strong and inventive and adventurous. When they are on their own, they have to come up with ways to eat and protect themselves. When with the boys, they must constantly be on point with their act. When Annamae is attacked, Sammy saves her. When she thinks a girl is being raped, she steps up and says something. The fact that she’s embarrassingly wrong makes her really confront her feelings for West. Every moment, evey decision, is about becoming more than the identity that has been placed on a person by society. This is more than simply a journey of miles. It is a journey of self-discovery. Reminding us that any experience can be a way to reshape the picture we, and the world, hold of who we are.