Summary: 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.
I'd heard about this book in passing on a list of Diverse YA Books, something I'm always interested in finding more of. When I found out that my local library had it, I thought, "Well, hey, why not?" and checked it out. Back at home, I started reading it...
...And fell in love.
This is one of those books that has everything I could ever possibly want in a novel. It's historical fiction! But with a diverse cast! The leads are teenaged girls of color! It's got a nice mix of humor and serious topics! The plot twists and turns and keeps you on your toes and the characters are wonderful and this is just a great book. I would highly recommend it.
I could just leave it at that, but let's break down why I'm so in love here.
The book is all from Samantha/Sammy's point of view, and she is definitely the most central character. She's unapolegetically Chinese, but she's also American--she was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents and has never known anywhere else. I really, really loved Sammy's narration, because it strikes a perfect balance as the words of someone who's sort of grown up in two worlds. Even so, she's relatable--as someone who hasn't been through a ton of hardship before the events of the book, she kind of allows the reader get acquainted with the Wild West at the same rate she does.
The rest of the characters aren't quite as fleshed out as Sammy, but they're very appreciable all the same. I especially appreciated Petey--actually, I just really loved the book's wholehearted acknowledgement of the fact that the inhabitants of the West during the cowboy/Gold Rush era were very diverse. You had all types of people: men, women, black people, white people, Mexicans, a ton of immigrants from everywhere from China to Ireland... Historical fiction is great, guys, and it gets better when the writer is willing to acknowledge that people of color existed in the past, too.
Besides having a diverse cast, the book has a solid, compelling story, and some great twists toward the end. There's also a little bit of romance, which isn't my cup of tea, but it's subdued enough that it didn't ruin the overall experience for me. Without giving too much away, the ending is bittersweet and gives you just enough closure, while still leaving it open for the characters to live the rest of their lives. And while the book doesn't shy away from serious topics and events, its tone never becomes too dark.
So, in conclusion, I greatly enjoyed this book and I would highly recommend it, particularly to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. If I end up doing another "Recommended Books of the Year" post this December, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee will definitely be on it.
Gracias, y adiós!