In 1849 Missouri, Sammy is an outsider, a Chinese girl with a gift for the violin. She dreams of moving back to New York City with her father, but as the book begins, her father has died suddenly and her dreams are shattered. Instead, she runs away with Annamae, a slave who hopes that Sammy is her ticket to freedom. Together, the girls head for California disguised as boys.
Under a Painted Sky is Lee’s debut, and it is an impressive one. Sammy and Andy are both at the end of their resources, desperate for a life that will save them from the one they left behind. Their relationship drives most of the book, and I loved the way that aspect was shown. They share a goal, but not the same experiences or outlook on life; their friendships is slow to bloom and sometimes prickly, but all the more real for that. I loved that they both learn from each other, and that they have to learn to trust each other to survive. The story looks at the realities of being a woman and a minority in 1849, while recognizing Sammy’s situation–as difficult as it is–does not begin to match Annamae’s. In many ways, Sammy is also a daughter of privilege, growing up in a well-educated, cultured family. I really appreciated the nuance here, as it would be easy to write a too-simple equation of one experience to the other. At the same time, Sammy and Andy find themselves in each other, in both little ways and larger ones.
Their friendship is really the heart of the book. As far as the rest goes, I felt that it gives a kind of alternate history in much the same way that YS Lee’s Agency series goes; YS Lee notes that she is giving Mary Quinn an “antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like [her]”, and I felt that to a certain extent here. It’s not meant as a criticism; I wanted fiercely for them to have a happy ending, while at the same time I kept remembering that so many people did not.
I also very much enjoyed the funny parts, which definitely exist (I think I’ve accidentally given the impression that this is a very Serious Book; it is, it takes on big things, but it’s also an adventure story). Part of the strength of this story, I think, is that it shows the very real diversity of the West during the 1800s, while also being the kind of journey-story which is exciting and appealing to certain readers. This is definitely one that should be marketed to boys as well as girls. The boys that Sammy and Andy travel with for most of their journey are important secondary characters, and provide several of the lighter moments.
And there are hard things that happen too, which both Sammy and Andy have to deal with and find a way to live with. It’s here that I circle back to my first point, the importance of their friendship. They give each other support and strength when the other needs it, in a way that echoes so much of the way I find female friends help and support each other. Far too often, we see women in books in isolation: I love when their relationships become the center of a story. I think that the readers who love Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire for the combination of historical setting and focus on female friendship should definitely take a look at this one.
If I have a slight criticism, it’s that there were a few places where the pacing or prose felt a little awkward, but this is a debut book and I will definitely be looking forward to much more from Stacey Lee. Sammy and Andy’s story is one I found compelling, and hard, and beautiful.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2015, G.P. Putnam’s Sons; YA historical fiction