May 1, 2015

Under a Painted Sky - Stacey Lee

Under a Painted Sky book cover
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 17, 2015
Source/Format: Bought || Hardcover

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 was fairly confident that I would enjoy Under a Painted Sky when I first heard about it, but I didn't realize how much I would truly come to love this story. There are so many parts that I could babble on about: an Asian female main character, the friendship sisterhood she shares with a black female slave, the group of cowboys they travel with, the setting and authenticity of life on the Oregon Trail, the emotional turmoil, the barest hint of romance. 

Because Under a Painted Sky is a very special novel, and hands down one of my favorite debuts this year, I wanted to do something a little different to emphasize how it inspired, challenged, surprised and amazed me. And while I was contemplating what I could do to make this review different, it suddenly occurred to me to try my hand at actual poetry to attempt to do this one justice. And so, I present a series of haikus (with brief thoughts inserted between) inspired by Under a Painted Sky.

Two girls in disguise;
Chinese and black girl running
from past to future.

Strangers at the start,
Bosom buddies by the end;
a true sisterhood.

Grief, fear, anger, hurt
make this trip emotional.
They do not give up.

There are no words, really, to describe what  fantastic characters Samantha and Annamae are. Samantha (Sammy), our Chinese heroine, loses her father and their business in one fell swoop, while Annamae (Andy) is a black slave girl. While they might seem as different as night and day, the girls share a lot of the same dreams and fears. They both desire to escape and be free, and hold on tightly to the people and things they love. They are stubborn enough to disguise themselves and try to prove that they're boys; they're vulnerable enough to be afraid of getting caught or finding themselves in a bad situation. It's the things they have in common that encourage their budding friendship, and I loved seeing it develop into a very sisterly bond. While they're both running from their personal demons, and often find themselves confronted by their worst fears, both girls are brave and supportive of one another. It's never easy to write female friendships, particularly between two girls with such different backgrounds, but Lee succeeds in making the relationship develop naturally.

Cowboys, horses, guns,
People going to the West
to find their fortune.

Natural causes,
illness, ill fortune, bullies - 
obstacles to beat.

The promise of joy
at the end of the journey
keeps people going.

As Sammy and Andy follow the Oregon Trail, they go on quite the adventure. There are bullies and stampedes, narrow escapes and life-threatening diseases, to name a few. And those are just the physical obstacles! On the emotional side, guilt, grief, anger, and fear are just some of the things our heroines feel. There are moments of brightness amid the negative things - the kindness of strangers, the joy of music, the blossoming of friendship. Lee manages to carefully balance between the two, painting a realistic portrait of these girls, their friends and enemies, and what they experience as they continue moving forward towards their future.

I am seriously in love with Under a Painted Sky. Lee swept me away with her words, with careful attention to the details and situations that would make my immersion into the Oregon Trail experience feel authentic. Add up this great setting, the fast-paced plot and two admirable young women, and what you'll get is an excellent read. I highly recommend picking up Under a Painted Sky!


  1. I absolutely agree. The friendship/sisterhood, the subtle History, the high stakes and narrow escapes along the Oregon Trail. This was a gorgeous and well-written book that will stick with me. Great review!
    Cassi @ My Thoughts

  2. Beautiful review Alexa, and I love the haiku you've added. So suiting to the story. I was impressed on how many taboo topics Lee managed to cover in so few pages - most notably racism and gender inequality. And I agree that Samantha and Annamae's bond was such an amazing driving force of the story. It's such a shame we don't see friendships like that in YA more often because Stacey Lee reminded me how wonderful they are.

    Thank you for sharing, and fabulous review! <33

    ~ Zoe @ Stories on Stage

  3. I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed Under a Painted Sky! I absolutely love historical fiction, so I was looking forward to this one initially, but now I'm really excited. I'm glad to hear that the characters shared a close sisterhood. I'd love to see more close friendships in books in general, so that's always a plus.

    Claire @ Cover to Cover

  4. I was super excited for the release of this book. The synopsis seemed like something I would probably never read but I'm glad I read it! I loved it so much and I agree with you, the characters are great! Also, I love you haikus! They are so fun to write, plus you don't have to rhyme XD Great review and thanks for sharing!

    ~Kaitlin @ Next Page Please!

  5. Nicole @ The Quiet ConcertMay 16, 2015 at 11:08 PM

    I love what you did with this review Alexa! So beautiful - your reviews always inspire me! I will definitely be reading this one and cannot wait! Sooner rather than later!


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