Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

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For Sammy and Andy — two boys on the Oregon Trail — there’s nothing but open land between the beginning of their journey in St. Louis, Missouri and the gold that awaits them in California.

Or, at least that’s what they want people on the trail to think. In Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Sammy and Andy are actually two girls, Samantha and Annamee, hiding under a layer of clothes and self-taught swaggered walks who are running from the law.

The concept of Under a Painted Sky is absolutely fascinating and something that will entice any curious reader. The novel is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Samantha who, after murdering her landlord in an act of self-defense, befriends the landlord’s 16-year-old slave, Annamae, as they desperately leave to St. Louis in search of a future. Samantha is off to find a man a family friend who might be able to help her in California. Annamae, on the other hand, is out to look for her brother, Isaac, who has been sold as a slave at a town called Harper Falls. Neither girl knows exactly what they’ll find on the trail, but both of them know that a heading west would lead them to the right direction, so both head onto the dangerous Oregon Trail as disguised as boys.

On the trail, Sammy and Andy, meet three young cowboys, Peety, Cay and West who befriend them almost instantly. The boys are fun and light-hearted, providing much-needed relief to the tense situation introduced at the beginning of the novel. They also serve as essential allies on the trail, providing Sammy and Andy with supplies, transportation and a sense of protection.

But Sammy and Andy never quite leave the cowboys’ side, though, neglecting their ability to form a true bond of friendship with each other. Both Sammy and Andy spend too much time trying to prove themselves to the three cowboys to really care about what direction the other is heading. While each cares for the other, their relationship lacks depth that makes this statement near the novel’s end come off as forced: “When God took away my father, he gave me a sister. She taught me how to be strong, how to thump my tail” (366). 

A romance develops between the two girls and two of the cowboys — a touch to the novel that comes off as unnecessary and distracts readers to what Under a Painted Sky could have become — a novel about two friends who remain together, despite hardships the trail presents them. The novel’s romance is just one of the many things the novel — from developing friendship, defying gender norms, and taking characters through tough situations — tries to accomplish but ends up falling flat because it is trying to do many different things at once. 

Under a Painted Sky had some really good instances that can help teach readers about intersectionality. The idea that Samantha, as a Chinese American girl, and Annamae have to deal with being women of color on the trail introduces complexities regarding both of their identities. Both girls openly accept their identities, rather than seeing it something as an impediment (beyond the physical appearance of being boys). Because of this, Under a Painted Sky can be a worthwhile read for someone who is interested in adventure, particularly with people of color leads. But the novel’s disappointing lack of development between the relationship between the two main characters may simply leave readers wanting something the novel is unable to provide. 

By: Lauren Aratani

Lee, Stacey. Under a Painted Sky. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

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