by Stacey Lee
Publication: March 17,2015
Under A Painted Sky is Lee’s debut novel. I’m a few years behind, but it could have been worse. I might have missed it altogether. It’s a stunning debut that immediately hooked me from the first line: “They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike a scrubbing brush.“ This harrowing tale of the long and dangerous trek west on the Oregon Trail is told through Samantha, a young Chinese girl who accidentally kills a man in self-defense. Although only trying to protect herself, she knows she will be charged with murder simply because the law will not take the side of a Chinese girl. Samantha is rescued by Annamae, a slave who seizes the opportunity to pursue her freedom, and together they flee west disguised as young men, Sam and Andy. En route to their destinations, they’re joined by cowboys Cay, West, and Peety, individuals also fleeing from circumstances of their own.
Lee is able to convey the harsh realities of the Oregon Trail from stampedes to the threat of bandits on the loose, but she provides a more nuanced tale by having the main character be Chinese American, someone born in the U.S. yet still viewed as perpetually foreign. Utilizing a person of color as the main character provides a different perspective of the world during this period. Anti-Asian sentiment is featured prominently in the story beginning with the predicament Sam finds herself in and the all-around vitriol environment from the use of racial slurs to how she is generally treated. One of the more pivotal moments strikes when Sam appears on a wanted poster except the picture isn’t her at all, feeding into the stereotype that all Asians look alike. Lee also captures the U.S.’s racist history through Andy’s stories about her siblings, which are heartbreaking as she relates them to Sam.
Sam and Andy’s relationship is the highlight of this story. They start as strangers thrown together by extenuating circumstances and are forced to trust one another. This shared experience forces them to bond with each other but eventually, it grows into something stronger. They look out for one another and inspire courage in each other. They begin to regard each other as more than friends; they begin to feel like sisters.
Found family is a heartwarming trope I love, and I especially enjoyed it here as Sam, Andy, and the trio of cowboys slowly worm their way into each other’s hearts. The conversations they have are often hilarious, and Cay’s antics provide much-welcomed comic relief. As their fondness for one another grows, Sam also develops a crush on one of the cowboys. Unexpectedly, I was gutted by the romance in this novel and was left upset for a few days. It wasn’t even a full-blown romance but more of an unrequited crush. I would reread some of the scenes over and try to make better sense of why it affected me so much but would come away slightly more devastated each time, repeatedly breaking my own heart. (I don’t understand why Lee did this to me!! Why???) I’m attributing it to having connected with Sam and the pain that comes with having a crush.
Overall, this was such a wonderful read centered around loss and friendship. I couldn’t put it down, and even after I finished reading it, I still didn’t want to. I just kept right on thinking about it. Stacey Lee is a phenomenal writer and reminded me why I used to adore historical fiction. If she is at the helm, I’ll be reading more books from this genre.