Under A Painted Sky (2015)

by Stacey Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9780606383912
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.

Luck of the Titanic (2021)

by Stacey Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781524740986
Publication: May 4, 2021

Valora Luck has dreamt of reuniting with her twin Jamie since he ventured off on his own, leaving her to take care of their father. After finding out Jamie will be on board the Titanic, she stowaways on it, intent on convincing him that it’s time they pursue their lifelong dreams of becoming acrobats.

The fate of the Titanic is well known but not all survivors’ stories are. Lee centers the story around the relatively unknown fact there were Chinese passengers also on board the Titanic. She sets the tone of the novel with a simple line: “Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.” I went into the book with a wall built around my heart but cracks still formed to topple it down. Lee carves out a piece of history and makes it her own with a bittersweet tale.

With Lee at the helm, I should have known it was a lost cause to protect myself from the fates of the characters. Who was going to live? Who was going to die? I tried to stay as disconnected as I could, but still found myself drawn into Valora’s story as she tried to convince her brother to pursue their dreams while trying to escape notice of the crew as well as other passengers. I was still able to laugh and I cheer all the while knowing tragedy was only pages away. Then, I cried.

Valora is a dreamer like her father, chasing down her dream of becoming an acrobat. Smart and determined, she’s always prepared to make her own luck, refusing to allow fate to stand in her way. While I liked Valora and appreciated her daring nature, I was slightly irritated with her constantly pushing her brother to see things her way, insistent he drop everything for their childhood dreams too. Her unwillingness to see beyond her own desires and to to try to understand who Jamie is now prevented me from fully supporting her efforts. It’s always difficult when the person you remember is both the same and different from who they have become, and throughout the novel Valora struggles with this.

Like Lee’s other novels, there is a bit of romance sprinkled in but it doesn’t overpower the central story. It left a lasting impression that hit me harder than many romance novels I’ve read. I don’t know how Lee does it because I felt this way about most of the romances that appeared in her other books too. In this particular novel, it’s likely I felt this way because it only just scratches the surface of the potential relationship so the promise of what’s to come left me wanting more. There are additional subplots included that make the story interesting, each weaving well into the other and supporting the overall story rather than feeling disjointed.

As the Titanic’s demise neared, it was difficult to keep my anxiety at bay. I wasn’t sure what would happen to the characters. It was never a matter of whether Lee would stick close to history and allow only six Chinese passengers to survive even as I tried to convince myself she would find some way around it. I knew it was always going to be who would be part of the six. Luck of the Titanic demonstrates once again Lee’s ability to give faces and names to the past, connecting me with people and stories across time. She took me down a journey that only lasted a few hours but left me heartsick for days.