I thoroughly enjoyed Stacey Lee’s upcoming OUTRUN THE MOON, and not just because she’s a fellow Chinese-American writer and UCD alum (check out my review for Her Campus at UCD here, along with some super-cool ARC pics)–after my review went up, Kirkus gave the book a starred review, so yeah, it’s really good and you should pre-order it. (This reference might be meaningless to most of you, but Mercy Wong called to mind Zhao Wei as Xiao Yanzi in “Huan Zhu Ge Ge”–if there’s anyone out there who somehow is both reading my blog and knows who that is, you know that is a compliment.) I was planning to read her first YA historical novel, UNDER A PAINTED SKY, after our interview before that took a backseat to the “my first ARC! I’M OFFICIALLY (kinda) A BOOK REVIEWER!!!” excitement. Well, immediately after finishing OtM I dove into UaPS and it’s a real treat.
UNDER A PAINTED SKY begins in Missouri, 1849. 15-year-old Samantha Chang is bitter at her beloved father for moving them westward and would rather move back to New York to open up a violin conservatory (her Chinese-American father has somewhat defied convention in giving his daughter an education, teaching her Chinese classics and several languages in addition to music). Her situation gets worse, however, when he tragically dies in a fire and their landlord attempts to rape her. She ends up killing him in self-defense, and knowing the law will side against the daughter of a “Chinaman”, flees for the Oregon Trail–along with Annamae, a runaway house slave. The two girls, one Chinese and the other black, disguise themselves as two boys, “Sam” and “Andy”. They eventually fall in with a band of three cowboys: ladykiller Cay Pepper, his more aloof cousin West, and friendly Mexican vaquero Peety.
(I like Pinterest and fan edits, so I made a little mood collage with the Oregon Trail, Sam’s violin Lady Tin-Yin, Independence Rock, Samantha/Sam, and Annamae/Andy–her hair should be shorter, but Amandla Stenberg was too good of a fancast to pass up.)
The premise is ingenious. I’m not usually a fan of Westerns (with the Texas-sized exception of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and more recently, the excellent indie film Slow West), and I’m actually a little prejudiced against anything involving the Oregon Trail, but I love, love, love outlaw romance-on-the-road, love-on-the-lam (or in this case, friendship-on-the-lam!) stories, like Bonnie and Clyde and True Romance and of course, Thelma & Louise. I found an author interview that mentioned Lee’s agent pitched this novel as a western Thelma & Louise but with heroines of color, and as a Chinese-American fan of that film, I love that! (Can you name even one Western with an Asian-American or African-American female protagonist, let alone both?!)
This wasn’t remotely surprising to me after reading Outrun the Moon, but the writing is strong and compelling, capturing the gritty nature of the frontier setting while remaining accessible and relatably YA. Much of the prose is taut and streamlined on account of its period, with a little less of the lush, gorgeous metaphorical language of OtM, but there are still dozens of beautiful descriptions and catchy turns of phrase. Like Outrun the Moon, Under a Painted Sky effortlessly interweaves Chinese culture, proverbs, and superstitions right into the narration. Whereas the upcoming book makes great use of Chinese face reading, its predecessor heavily incorporates the Zodiac signs. Samantha was born in the Year of the Snake while Annamae is a Dragon; Cay, West, and Peety are a Tiger, Rabbit, and Rat respectively. I’ve encountered this technique before in Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and actually found it a little overbearing in that book, so I was surprised by how effective it was here. You’ll notice the pretty swishy, calligraphy-esque lines on the cover are actually Snakes and Dragons! How cool is that?
For all the accomplished language and sheer ingenuity of the plot, though, what’s really memorable are the stellar characters. Sam, the Thelma of the duo in more than just situation, is sensitive, not very physically sturdy, and prone to crying easily, but she’s also highly educated and resilient. I really like that she’s a “girly” character who’s allowed to be both feminine and capable–she appears to possess characteristics that are often associated with Asian women (docile, weak, delicate flower, head over heels with a white guy, and I suppose playing the violin could be considered stereotypical of modern-day Asian teens), but then subverts these stereotypes by proving resourceful and brave. She loves but wasn’t subservient to her father, who very refreshingly isn’t portrayed as an abusive or even controlling patriarch. Andy, used to physical hardship as a slave, is better suited to the road, but she isn’t tough in a stereotypical “Sassy Black Woman” way. Though her life has been even more hindered by racism and sexism, she isn’t defined solely by her former servitude–she also has a strong faith and tells great stories. Besides all the intersectional feminist win (also unsurprising, given Stacey Lee is a member of We Need Diverse Books), they’re also just cool characters. Both Sam and Andy have greater aspirations and complex loyalties, and I love that the conflict in their friendship doesn’t come from forced girl-on-girl cattiness or backstabbing, but from the fact that they both have motivations of their own that could potentially take them to different places.
There’s a ton of suspense on the trail to California. Sam and Andy have to simultaneously worry about keeping up the charade as boys, bounty hunters and lawmen on their tracks, and the dangers of the terrain itself. Oh, and the sexual tension is terrific. After the badassery that is Mercy Wong (seriously, pre-order Outrun the Moon!) I had a lot of faith in Stacey Lee’s ability to write great heroines, but I was a little unprepared for how much I cared about the three cowboys who take them under their wing. Not just as YA love interests, but as Sam and Andy’s friends. Even though they’re far too old, I kept picturing Cay and West as Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise and Michael Fassbender in Slow West, respectively (I pictured Diego Boneta as Pete), and admittedly that helped.
This review is getting absurdly long, so I’ll conclude by saying Under a Painted Sky is a well-imagined, beautifully written book full of action and suspense, but also a lot of heartbreak, humor, and heart (and yes, romance!) Oh, and it has one more thing that made me appreciate Outrun the Moon (pre-order it!!!) even more–but I’ll be damned if I tell you what that is!