I think this book had the misfortune of following These Shallow Graves, one of my favorite books of the year. I definitely had a bit of a book hangover, and maybe that hampered my enjoyment of Under a Painted Sky. But I just never felt like this book got to where it wanted to go.
Missouri,1849. Sammy is a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming a professional violinist. But when a double-helping of tragedy strikes, she finds herself orphaned and wanted for murder. Seeing no other options, she takes off on the Oregon Trail with Annamae, an escaped slave. The Oregon Trail is no place for two young women, so Sammy and Annamae go undercover as two young argonauts seeking their fortune out west.
My favorite thing about this book was that it features a strong female friendship. Sammy and Annamae build a beautiful bond together as they both escape the demons of their pasts. I really grew to love both of their characters — especially clever and headstrong Annamae. She was a perfect foil to the more introspective Sammy. Even when romance entered into the picture, Lee was careful to make sure the true focus of the novel remained on the relationship between Sammy and Annamae. I loved that.
The author, Stacey Lee, is one of the founders of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and I so appreciated the diversity of this novel. Sammy is proudly and unapologetically Chinese, and many of her conversations and inner monologues are peppered with cultural references — it’s educational but not at all didactic. Annamae, too, is proud of her heritage and does not allow herself to be bullied or harassed by racists. I wish all books embraced diversity as much as this one did.
I thought the plot was lacking. The book gets off to such an exciting start, but after Sammy and Annamae hit the trail, it all kind of drags on. They meet the hot cowboys who take them under their wing, and then there’s like a hundred pages of cowboy lessons (roping, hunting, etc), sing-a-longs, and mild sexual tension. There’s a lot about horses and hunting and fishing. I kept waiting for the Big Climax or Shocking Conflict but it never really materialized. It was just kind of a fun cowboy story, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it didn’t hold my interest.
The writing itself is very beautiful. Stacey Lee paints the landscape of the wild west expertly. It’s definitely atmospheric, and it was really easy to picture myself sitting around the campfire with this band of cowboys. She’s a great descriptive writer. One of my favorite descriptions:
I never heard someone call the sky painted before, but it’s the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape.
It’s definitely not a bad book — I think this could’ve been a four-star read if I hadn’t just finished an almost-perfect historical novel. But the plot was too unstructured, and by the 3/4ths mark, reading it kind of felt like a chore.